As I’ve mentioned, the Soviet side of World War Two has captured my attention recently. Why was it that when the rest of the world didn’t think women had a place in combat, the Soviet Union was fielding women snipers, and whole regiments of women bomber and fighter pilots?
The answer is Operation Barbarossa, the largest military invasion in history.
On June 22, 1941, more than 3 million German (and other) troops, spearheaded by panzer divisions and supported by the Luftwaffe, invaded the Soviet Union‡. Before grinding to a halt less than 100 kilometers from Moscow, Operation Barbarossa would inflict 4.9 million military casualties on the Red Army, and destroy 1000s of towns and villages. It would destroy tanks, and planes, and nearly destroy the Soviet Union.
While the Wiki and other sources are good for a quick overview (the link above is to Britannica), most of my knowledge comes from Operation Barbarossa: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia 1941. That link is to Amazon, but I got a copy of the book courtesy of my local public library. (As several people have noted, it is NOT the definitive account of that period of the war. It is too short. There is a 3-volume set that probably fills that bill, in the Osprey Campaign Series, but I haven’t gotten to it.) It is a bit dry, considering the nature of the material, but it does seem to be a good overview of the campaign. I’m sure there are more readable accounts of what went on, but that volume covers information from both sides of the conflict.
While I can’t go into details here it is a hell of a story. The treaties signed between Germany and the Soviet Union that the Nazis never intended to honor. The initial invasion that all but destroyed Soviet command and control. The ensuing insanity of the Russian generals, and the secret police, until reality intruded. The Soviet Union’s wholesale dismantling of industry in the west and moving it to the east, followed by “scorched earth” tactics denying everything to Germans – destroying their own railroads, power plants, etc. On the German side there were war crimes. The Germans were especially brutal to the civilians.
As summer turned to fall and winter, the Germans had problems with the Russian weather. First the fall rain turned the mud in Russia into a paste that could stop German panzers. From the Wiki…
Additional snows fell which were followed by more rain, creating a glutinous mud that German tanks had difficulty traversing, whereas the Soviet T-34, with its wider tread, was better suited to negotiate.
That winter saw temperatures that were exceptionally cold, early in December. This was significant because of the destruction of Russian railroad engines. The Russians used a different gauge track, so Germany had to rebuild any railroad that they intended to use, and then when winter set it, the German engines could not maintain steam pressure in the cold. (That is COLD!)
Even so, the Germans managed to come within a very short distance of Moscow. Though I think they were stopped as much by logistics as by the Red Army.
On 2 December, part of the 258th Infantry Division advanced to within 24 km (15 mi) of Moscow. They were so close that German officers claimed they could see the spires of the Kremlin, but by then the first blizzards had begun.
The other problems from the cold were coming up. Lack of cold-weather uniforms were only the start. Germans were running short of everything, because the tanks – even with the problems they faced, kept outpacing their wheeled support vehicles.
Operation Barbarossa was the largest military operation in history — more men, tanks, guns and aircraft were committed than had ever been deployed before in a single offensive. The invasion opened up the Eastern Front (World War II), the largest theater of war during that conflict, and it witnessed clashes of unprecedented violence and destruction for four years that resulted in the deaths of 26 million Soviet people and about 8.6 million being Red army deaths. More people died fighting on the Eastern Front than in all other fighting across the globe during World War II. Damage to both the economy and landscape was enormous for the Soviet Union as approximately 1,710 towns and 70,000 villages were razed. [Reference]
There isn’t room in a post like this for everything, and the War Crimes of the Einsatzgruppen (“Deployment groups” of the Schutzstaffel – SS – were paramilitary death squads) could fill a book, let alone a post. One of the more interesting (and disturbing) events surround the Jewish Ghetto in Vilna, and the Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye (United Partisan Organization) and Abba Kovner. Before there was a Marvel Cinematic Universe, and even before there was Mr. Steed and Ema Peel, there was Nakam, “The Avengers.” Though that would come after the war. Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye was the resistance in the Vilna Ghetto. Even in the face of eyewitness testimony, a large number of Jews in Vilna didn’t want to believe that the SS was committing mass-murder. Kovner understood, and the FPO took to the woods to fight the war alongside other Soviet Partisans. There are books written about Vilna, the uprising, Kovner and The Avengers.
The same people who will talk about recognizing the valor of soldiers commanded by Robert E. Lee during the Civil War, have given me grief over recognizing the accomplishments of the Red Army during The Great Patriotic War. (That’s what the Russians still call World War Two.) The Confederate States of America was not the greatest government ever, but Lee, and his troops, fought with valor, and honor, and what they did was even recognized by the Union veterans before the Turn of the Century. The Soviet Union was an awful government, but the Red Army did some amazing things in defending Russia from the Nazis, even – and especially – if you consider the insanity of the officer corps, Stalin and his government, let alone the Secret Police. And they managed to do some things right, like move their industry when it became clear they couldn’t protect it. That kept that industrial base out of German hands – it was one of the reasons Hitler wanted to invade – and it meant that they could continue to prosecute the war for the next 3 years. And the Soviet Union’s ability to call up reserves, in the face of what can only be described as devastating losses, impressed me.
‡ Note: By way of comparison, the D-Day invasion consisted of “nearly 175,000” men.