Seventy five years ago German nazi armies attacked the Soviet Union hoping for an easy conquest but its defenders stood steadfast and fascism was halted. PETER FROST has the story.
Three-quarters of a century ago on June 22 1941 Hitler launched what would be the largest military operation in human history — the invasion of the Soviet Union. He codenamed it Operation Barbarossa.
The invasion was the logical culmination of Hitler’s belief that the German master race should seek lebensraum — living space — in the east. A key part of his plan to establish a German Reich that would last a 1,000 years.
The inferior races, the so-called untermenschen, were to be exterminated or reduced to serfs. What the nazis characterised as Jewish Bolshevism would be crushed.
From the outset it was to be a war of annihilation in which millions would be slaughtered. It marked the start of the Holocaust — the systematic murder of six million Jews along with communists, trade unionists, socialists, gypsies and other groups hated by the nazis.
Hitler and other top nazis were convinced that the Soviet Union would simply crumble under the weight of fascist forces comprising four million men, 3,600 tanks, over 4,000 aircraft and 46,000 artillery guns attacking along a 1,800-mile front from the Baltic in the north to the Black Sea in the south.
Happily, they totally underestimated the Soviet Union and its capacity and determination to defeat the scourge of fascism.
Planning for Barbarossa had begun over a year previously after the fall of France where German blitzkrieg (lightning war) tactics had speedily overcome the French forces still committed to the static lines of defence they had used in WWI.
Nazi triumph followed and set the mood for Hitler to look east and listen to reports from his network of spies that the Soviet Union was weak. He told his troops and allies: “We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.” How wrong he would prove to be.
At 4.15am on June 22 1941 the Luftwaffe began to bomb naval and air bases destroying roughly one-quarter of the Soviet air force. Before the Red Army had time to react the German army began its three-pronged attack across the nearly thousand-mile front.
Within a week Hitler’s allies Romania, Italy, Finland, Hungary and Albania had also declared war on the Soviet Union.
The country wasn’t well prepared for the first wave of attacks that came in mid-June. As in their French victories, the Luftwaffe quickly gained air superiority as tanks and motorised infantry punched holes through the Soviet front line.
The nazis attacked on three fronts — the Baltic states and Leningrad in the north, Moscow in the centre and the Ukraine and southern Russia in the south.
At first the Germans had the upper hand with some nazi units advancing as much as 50 miles on the first day. In the south, however, resistance was fiercer than expected.
But even here there were early setbacks for Soviet forces — 250,000 were lost in a massive encirclement around Minsk at the end of June, 180,000 were taken prisoner at Smolensk, while the Red Army suffered 500,000 casualties at the Battle of Kiev in September.
Despite these enormous casualties the nazis had severely underestimated both the resources of the Soviet Union and more important the tenacity and resolve of its people. This was demonstrated in a willingness to accept savage losses yet still keep fighting.
This resolve severely tested the German offensives. The nazi occupiers were running out of steam as front-line units halted for resupply and replacements, stretching their supply lines to breaking point.
Hitler ordered his troops on towards Moscow in what he codenamed Operation Typhoon, launched on October 2. Just 10 days later German units were within miles of the Russian capital but heroic resistance caused heavy German casualties.
The Soviets had an extra ally in the form of heavy rain — they call it rasputitsa — which turned bad roads into rivers of mud slowing the nazi advance to a crawl. Yet by early December, German troops could see the towers and domes of Moscow just a few miles away. Victory seemed in sight.
However, a massive Soviet counterattack, using fresh units brought in from the east, supported by advanced T-34 tanks, turned the tide and drove the Germans back. Munitions factories were moved back from the front line with barely a brief pause in production.
Partisans too were an essential part of the Soviet war effort. Women and men, mostly ordinary citizens, caused havoc behind enemy lines. Indeed, so much so that the nazis were forced to divert considerable resources to try to deal with them.
On the other hand in parts of Ukraine, Latvia and Estonia, the nazis gained some support from local collaborators.
These were involved in some of the most brutal atrocities. At Babi Yar (below) outside Kiev in September 1941 30,000 Jews were massacred by German and Ukrainian nazis.
As the Russian winter set in, the nazis were forced to abandon their offensive. Hitler had been so confident of a quick victory that he had not prepared for even the possibility of winter warfare in Russia.
Russian snows — General Winter as Russian historians have always called them — combined with the dogged resistance and fighting spirit of Soviet women and men in and out of the armed forces. The nazis had met their match.
General Winter was only one factor that helped strike the killer blow. Despite enormous losses in territory, men and weaponry, the Soviet people had fought on and survived.
Hitler would try again in 1942, but as the immense resources of the Soviet Union and the tenacious population were brought into play the eastern front would become a graveyard of the German armed forces, as men, tanks and aircraft were thrown into a conflict they could never win and one that in the end would lead to their total defeat.
If the nazis had defeated the Soviet Union, Britain would have been hopelessly isolated and Russia’s huge natural resources would have given Germany a massive boost, while strategically the nazis would have been able to link up with the Japanese and help them with desperately needed oil for the war in the Pacific.
One thing is certain, without the huge sacrifices made by the people of the Soviet Union fascism in Europe would not have been defeated. So were they repaid by gratitude from the Britain and the US?
No. All to soon plans and propaganda would be put in place to make our former friends and allies in the Soviet Union our new hated enemies in what would become the cold war.
But that is another story.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 25 June 2016.