In August 1939, as Europe moved toward another world war, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a treaty that said neither country would attack the other. Other countries were very surprised by the Nazi-Soviet Pact, since the two countries had very different ideas. It started a time of military cooperation that let Hitler ignore diplomatic moves from the west and attack Poland. Then, Stalin’s forces came from the west and finished taking over and dividing the Polish state. Over the next year and a half, Germany’s economy also grew thanks to the deal. Russia sent grain and oil to Germany in exchange for manufactured goods.
With the help of the Soviet Union, Hitler was able to make his plans for taking over Europe even bigger. In May of 1940, the Blitzkrieg moved west, and in six weeks, France was taken over. But peace would not last with Russia. Hitler had always wanted Germany to grow to the east so that its people could have more “living space.”
After France fell, Hitler told people to start making plans for an invasion of the Soviet Union. He wanted to get rid of what he saw as Stalin’s “Jewish Bolshevik” regime and make the Nazis the most powerful group in the world. The racially “inferior” Slavic people of the Soviet Union would be conquered and made slaves as part of a long-term plan for “Germanization” and economic exploitation that would last long after the expected military victory. Even though the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had been working together on economic and political issues recently, it was still seen as the natural enemy of Nazi Germany and a key strategic goal.
Hitler gave Führer Directive 21 on December 18, 1940. This was an order to attack the Soviet Union. The German military plan called for an advance to the so-called “A-A line,” which was an imaginary line from the port of Archangel in northern Russia to the port of Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea. This would give Germany control over most of the Soviet people and their economic power.
Invasion of Russia
Operation “Barbarossa,” named after the all-conquering medieval Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, started on June 22, 1941, five weeks after operations in Greece and Yugoslavia were finished. Along a 1,800-mile front, more than 3.5 million German and other Axis troops attacked. Eighty percent of the German Army, or 148 divisions, were involved in the project. With 3,400 tanks, the vanguard was made up of 17 panzer divisions organized into four panzer groups. The Luftwaffe helped them out with 2,700 planes. It was the most powerful invasion force ever.
The German army was split into three groups, and each group had a different goal. Army Group North was supposed to go through Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia to get to Leningrad. Army Group South would launch an attack into the Ukraine, going for Kiev and the industrial area of Donbas (Donets Basin). Between them, Minsk, Smolensk, and then Moscow itself were the goals of Army Group Center. Hitler thought that all of these things would be done in about ten weeks.
The Soviets had put together a lot of troops on their western border, but they were told not to make the Germans angry. Stalin didn’t trust Hitler, but he didn’t think he would attack so soon, even though Germany was getting ready for war and there were a lot of warnings from intelligence. He had about 5 million men ready to go right away and a total of 23,000 tanks, but when the Germans attacked, the Red Army was not ready.
The Germans got off to a good start. The panzer groups moved quickly toward their goals, while the Russian forces broke up and got lost. The Luftwaffe’s bombing of Soviet airfields, artillery positions, and large groups of troops helped them a lot. The Germans quickly took control of the air. On the first day, 1,800 Soviet planes, most of which were on the ground, were shot down. General Erich Hoepner’s Panzer Group 4 led the way as Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Army Group North charged toward Leningrad. In this area, Russian forces were spread out, and the panzers went 500 miles (804 km) in three weeks. By the middle of July, they were only 96 km (60 miles) away from their goal.
Under Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, Army Group Center also made quick progress. By June 28, Panzer Group 2, led by General Heinz Guderian, and Panzer Group 3, led by General Hermann Hoth, had surrounded and captured more than 320,000 Russian soldiers in the Bialystok-Minsk pockets. The two panzer groups then moved forward, and on July 27, they joined up on the opposite side of Smolensk for another double envelopment. Two more Russian armies were trapped and killed, and 300,000 more Russian soldiers were taken prisoner.
Attacks on Ukraine
Army Group South, led by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, had the most distance to go, and the Soviets defended against its attack the hardest. This front was where most of the Russian tanks were. But by the beginning of July, von Rundstedt had gone past the Polish border that was in place before 1939. As General Ewald von Kleist’s Panzer Group 1 moved toward Kiev, the capital of Ukraine and the key to the coal-rich Donets Basin, the Soviets attacked from the sides. This slowed them down. On August 8, the Germans surrounded two Soviet armies and took 100,000 people prisoner in the Uman pocket. They then moved toward the Dnieper River. A siege was also put on the Black Sea naval port of Odessa.
Up to this point, everything seemed to be going well, with the only big problem being the time it took for the infantry to catch up with the tanks and clear out pockets of Russian defense. But despite terrible losses, Soviet resistance was getting stronger. In a costly but successful counterattack, the German salient around Yelnya, south-east of Smolensk, was taken back.
At the same time, the supply situation for Army Group Centre was getting worse. Hitler decided to stop moving toward Moscow and to add more troops to Army Groups North and South. Hoth’s Panzer Group 3 was sent north to help with the attack on Leningrad, and Guderian’s tanks were sent to help Army Group South take Kiev. The German High Command spoke out strongly against it. Only 220 miles separated the panzers from Moscow. But Hitler thought the Ukraine was more important because it had a lot of resources. On August 21, he gave the order that the Crimea and the Donets Basin should be taken first.
The Germans did everything they could to trick the Soviets. Five Soviet armies were stuck in a large sliver of land around Kiev. As usual, Stalin wouldn’t let anyone take money out before the pocket was closed. By the end of September, Kiev had been taken over, and over 650,000 Russian soldiers had been killed or taken prisoner. The Germans moved along the coast of the Black Sea and into the Crimea, putting Sevastopol under siege. Kharkov fell in October, but by that time the Germans were tired. Their numbers were very low because of the fighting, and their supply lines were full. The southern front stayed where it was for the time being. Even in the north, German forces had done all they could. With the help of their Finnish allies, they cut off Leningrad from the rest of Russia in September, but they didn’t have enough power to take the city. Hitler instead told them to starve them until they gave up. 890 days would pass during the epic siege.
The final road to Moscow
Hitler now chose to start fighting again for Moscow. He began Operation “Typhoon” on October 2. He thought that the Russians had been badly hurt and didn’t have enough strength to defend their capital. He thought that if he just pushed one more time, the capital would fall and he would win. But more people joined the Red Army. Nearly a million Soviet troops were there, but they didn’t have many tanks or planes left. The city’s citizens had been called to arms and a ring of defenses had been set up around the capital. The German offensive was led by a stronger Army Group Center, which had 1 million men and 1,700 tanks in three infantry armies and three panzer groups. But the Luftwaffe was weak after operating for more than three months. And the weather started to change.
Again, the first attack was successful. The panzer divisions rushed ahead, and in two more huge encirclements near the cities of Bryansk and Vyazma, more than 600,000 Russian soldiers were taken prisoner. There were only about 90,000 Russian soldiers left. But when they got close to Moscow, the German formations slowed down so much that they could barely move. When it rained in the fall, the dirt roads turned into muddy rivers. It was the Rasputitsa, also called the “quagmire season,” and both wheeled and horse-drawn vehicles got stuck. The Germans decided to stop everything for now.
In the middle of November, when the weather was getting colder and the ground was hard and frozen, the panzers tried one last pincer attack around Moscow. The delay gave the Soviets time to bring in more troops, including reservists and troops from Siberia and the eastern borders. The northern German pincer was the most successful and came within 12 miles of the city. With their field glasses, the German officers could see the buildings of the Kremlin. The Germans also tried to attack in the middle, along the road that goes from Minsk to Moscow. On December 2, a unit of spies got to within five miles of Moscow. Even though they were so close, this was as far as they could go. In the deep snow, the worn-out German units were frozen and unable to move.
On December 5, the Soviets surprised everyone by going on the offensive. Even though Hitler told his troops to defend every inch of ground, they were forced to retreat. Guderian and a number of other high-ranking generals who suggested pulling out were fired. The Russians were able to destroy different German formations by surrounding them with their own troops. Even though it was hard for the Luftwaffe to work, it did important jobs like getting supplies to units that were cut off and slowing down the Russian advance. Army Group Center had to move up to 150 miles away from Moscow. Hitler was so angry that he fired Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, who was in charge of the German Army, and put himself in charge instead.