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Operation Barbarossa:the Biggest Land Invasion in World History

MG is a senior air warrior who has seen combat and is an alumnus of the Staff College and a writer on military matters.



Adolf Hitler was a great admirer of the 12th century German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa also known as Frederick I. He was the Holy Roman Emperor from 1155 until his death 35 years later. He had launched an invasion of Russia and is credited for Christianizing the Balkan states with the sword. The German leader had a warped sense of racial superiority and considered the Slav races inferior to the German race. He also considered Jews to be sub-human. In addition to this race theory, he envisaged a conquest of the eastern lands and their population with the German people with the locals living as slaves to supply food and raw material for the German nation. Therefore despite the Nazi-Soviet peace treaty in 1939, the portents for a clash with Russia were always on. He also hated Bolshivision mainly because the founder of the Marxist theory Karl Marx had been born a Jew.

Despite the example of Napoleon before him, Adolf Hitler still prevailed on the German general staff to prepare for the invasion of Russia. In 1812 Napoleon Bonaparte had led the Grand Army on the invasion of Russia. Despite reaching Moscow, Napoleon had to retreat and in the bargain, 500,000 French soldiers went to the next world.

Operation Barbarossa the conquest of Russia was planned. It effectively was from 22 June 1941 to 5 December 1941. By this date, Hitler expected to have achieved his objectives. He also expected the Soviet state to collapse leaving him master of the world but he had not catered for the iron will and resolve of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and that was the fly in the ointment.

The OKH had planned the invasion for mid-May 1941 but the need to help his Italian ally necessitated the invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece in April of that year. This led to a 5-week delay in the invasion of Russia. This was to prove serious because in 1941 the Russian winter arrived earlier than usual catching the German army unprepared for the severe sub-zero cold. Nevertheless, the army chief Von Brauchitsch and chief of General staff, Franz Halder were smug in their belief that Russia could be defeated in two or three months.


The invasion- preparation

The Germans were now ready to launch the greatest invasion in human history. It was more ferocious than the campaign of Changezi Khan or the sweep of Alexander the Great. The Germans massed 150 divisions totaling roughly 3,000,000 men. These included 19 Panzer divisions, 3,000 tanks, 7,000 artillery guns, and 2,500 aircraft. A further plus point was 30 divisions of Finnish and Romanian troops. This was the biggest and most powerful invasion in the military history of the world. Adolf Hitler was sure that the Russian state would collapse like Poland and France in 3 to 4 months and he made his calculations accordingly.

The Russians had twice the number of troops but they were not mobilized as the Russians were not expecting an attack. The Russian Army had not been mobilized despite Marshal Zhukov's request to Stalin to declare at least a partial mobilization. When the attack came it was like a sledgehammer that took Stalin completely by surprise and resulted in the capture of almost 5,000,000 Soviet soldiers. Almost 90% of the soldiers who were taken POW were allowed by the Germans to starve to death.


The battle

The German's launched three army groups for the attack. The commanders chosen were the same who had taken part in the battle of France(1940). The Army groups were as follows

- Army Group(North) under Gen. Wilhelm von Leeb. It was to strike from East Prussia into the Baltic states towards Leningrad and capture the city.

- Army Group (south), under General von Rundstedt along with an armored group under Gen. Ludwig von Kleist. It was to advance from southern Poland into Ukraine and capture Kiev. It was then expected to move South East towards the sea of Azov and the Black Sea and the Caspian.

- Army Group Centre was to deliver the main sledgehammer blow. It was commanded by general von Bock and aided by an armored group commanded general Heinz Guderian. The aim was to drive into the heart of Russia and capture Moscow and bring about the downfall of the Communist regime led by Stalin.

The German advance on all fronts was simply spectacular. Within a matter of two months, the Germans had occupied an area double the size of France and were nearing towards the targets of Leningrad and Moscow. Besides, millions of Russian soldiers were taken prisoners of war. General Halder at that time wrote in his diary that the Fuhrer has finished the Russian campaign inside six weeks. It was however a case of counting the chickens before they are hatched. Winter came much earlier by almost 3 weeks and it was the coldest winter in many decades.

The German offensive ground to a halt in the cold and almost 700,000 soldiers were affected by frostbite. Besides, the supply lines were greatly affected as the wheels and the tracked transports could not move forward in the Russian mud. The Russians destroyed the rail system and all rolling stock had been moved east words and the only mode of transport was the horse for the German army. More than 200,000 horses were pressed into service but these were raised in Germany in a temperate climate and unsuitable for use in winter in Russia and thousands of horses died.

The drive against Moscow petered out and the Soviet commander on the Moscow front, Gen. Georgy Zhukov launched on December 6 the first counteroffensive. Columns of Siberian troops were used for these offensives. These groups are more adaptable to the cold and they were well-equipped and the Germans began to be pushed back. Soon a triple convergence of the offensive took place and was sustained throughout the winter of 1941–42.

Operation Barbarossa had begun to miscarry in October 1941. By December the objectives had not been achieved and the Russian government had not collapsed. On the contrary, the Germans were suffering heavy casualties in the fighting and also due to the bitter cold. Knowledgeable members of the Wehrmacht had concluded that the battle in Russia was going to be long and there would be no victory. In retrospect Operation, Barbarossa failed to achieve its objectives and by the end of December 41, the tide had begun to turn against the Germans.

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The end

Historians now conclude that operation Barbossa was a failure. Perhaps the Germans could have achieved their targets in case they had not been delayed by the battle in the Balkans. Even then they stood a good chance of achieving their objectives but the onset of winter by three weeks was God's way of halting the German horde.

The Russians suffered twice the number of casualties compared to the Germans but overall they had tremendous reserves and as Field Marshal von Paulos stated in his interrogation that he never knew that the Russians had so much of reserve power.

Unlike Changez Khan who died a victor the great invasion launched by Hitler though the biggest invasion in world history floundered in the Russian winter and mud. Hitler claimed that he had read the masters of warfare from Clausewitz, Fredrick, Moltz to Schieffelin but he should have studied the campaign of Napoleon which he didn't and that spelled doom for him.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 07, 2020:

Glad you agree with me

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 05, 2020:

Many people give praise to General Cariappa but I'm afraid he's the man who started the downside of the General staff. More on that later.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 03, 2020:

Thanks, Alan, must write on him

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on October 03, 2020:

Got a page on Slim? I think i've worn the treads of this page down to the metal. TTFN

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 03, 2020:

I have read his defeat into victory. When Monty was retiring he did not recommend Slim for CIGS

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 02, 2020:

Alan, this is very interesting information. Slim's army was the forgotten army but yet he did a great job with whatever resources he had. My great uncle was a captain in 4 Div and was under wãvell. Later he was transferred to Burma.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on October 02, 2020:

One of the former Army barracks in York is Imphal, a close-run thing - as the Duke of Wellington described Waterloo - we have the Royal West Kents and units of the Indian Army to thank for their part in keeping the Japanese at bay. That's been well documented, emge. They have a regular memorial service in Durham Cathedral to mark the siege only completely broken by an artillery barrage after weeks of waiting (why Durham I don't know, as Canterbury would normally be their church. The soldiers were in a poor state of health by the time they were relieved. One of my teachers was with the Durham Light Infantry as an artillery spotter during the Burma campaign.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 01, 2020:

Alan, I also thought about why the Alaska route was not used. One reason could be the cost of transportation across Siberia to the European theatre. There was only one train line at that time the Transsiberian Railway and probably the rolling stock was not up to the mark. Russia has very few sea openings and the Baltic Sea could not be used nor could the Black Sea. So perhaps the only route left was over the Arctic Ocean to Murmansk. The Convoy you mention Is the subject of a wonderful novel if I remember correctly by Alistair MacLean.

As it happens in every war everybody doesn't get what he wants and so the fighting men got all the credit and the merchantmen got nothing. I have written somewhere in one of my articles about Field Marshal Slim, he was a great chap who loved the Indian Army but Monty didn't like him. I also remember when I was in England a few years back there was a poll conducted among the English as to which they considered being the greatest battle in the history of England. The poll rated the battle of Imphal against the Japanese as number one closely followed by Waterloo at number two. I think somewhere on the internet the details will be available. There is no doubt that the siege of Imphal and the ensuing battle sounded the death knell of the Imperial army.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on October 01, 2020:

What's always puzzled me, emge, is why we didn't supply the Soviet Union by way of Alaska-Kamchatka in winter, along the Aleutian Islands. Considering the US held off the Japanese up there, in winter the sea north of them is frozen solid - like the lake east of Leningrad was used to supply the city there - instead of ferrying the stuff around the North Cape of Norway to Murmansk. One convoy was abandoned by the Royal Navy when word reached Admiralty House that 'Tirpitz' was expected to disrupt them.

Convoy PQ17 I think it was, where the Royal Navy Reserve (RNR) officer in charge of a trawler-turned-minesweeper managed to get a US and UK cargo ship into port from Spitsbergen after covering the decks and sides in white bedding and table cloths from stores (ever hear of that one?). He ran the risk of being court-martialled for disobeying the order, "Scatter" - and let the merchant ships 'face the music, i.e., Condor bombers, U-Boats and Stukas, on their own. He was a City of London barrister by profession and went back to business after the war as if he'd just been commuting all the war. A lot of vital war supplies for Russia were needlessly wasted on that route, merely because they could use the Gulf Stream Drift past Norway's waters.

And yes the Indian Army's contribution to the war effort on ALL fronts was overlooked, but then as i've mentioned before the Merchant Navy, RAF Bomber Command and the British Army on the Burma-Thailand Front were also considered forgotten. Air Marshal Harris was shunted sideways after the war and no 'campaign gongs' were awarded to his lads. Likewise the Merchant Navy was treated disgustingly badly despite forming a lifeline for the UK and Russia. Field Marshal Slim defeated the Japanese in SE Asia with 'cast-off' equipment, and Chindits leader Ord Wingate relied on US gliders to get his men behind Japanese lines in Burma.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 30, 2020:

Tom, yes, it was an army that distinguished in both world wars but Western historians give only grudging appreciation. People talk more of Free French whose contribution was close to zero.

tom on September 30, 2020:

largest volunteerarmy in history ,cut to four lakhs in 1947

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 30, 2020:

Alan, I am not able to understand how ˜Hitler treated the Russians so badly. As far as the `french are concerned I am afraid they in my opinion are poor fighters. It's not a sweeping statement as some units did fight but the way they behaved in Algeria and put their hands up at Dien Bien Phu against the Viet Minh is shocking. The French were not at Yalta yet they were included as one of the victors. De Gaulle? what was his contribution?

The India Legion really shook the British, perhaps that was Hitler's aim. The India Legion was not used in Russia but only in North Italy and France. The SS to which they were attached looked after them and even their food habits like no beef for Hindus and no pork for Muslims was followed. Even Subhas Bose was well looked after in Berlin and he married a German girl. He received an allowance from the German government. Hitler had a plan for an invasion of India "Operation Bajedor" But Stalingrad stopped all that and that's how Bose was transported by U boat to Japan. Just for the record 2.5 million Indian soldiers fought in WWII and at their best( that too towards the end of the war) the Free French were just a million. Most of the time they were just 2000-300 hundred thousand.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 30, 2020:

Yes, Tom, that is a fact of history. Indians are everywhere but sadly with 2.5 million men fighting for the allies, the credit is not there, only a small thump on the back.

tom on September 30, 2020:

german cavalry divsions in russia lost horses due to cold ,siberian horses of russia survived,hitler,charles the second of sweden and napoleon all defeated by russian weather. indian troops of army service corps in iran caucasian road were given medals by russians

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on September 29, 2020:

French command still relied on dispatch riders in 1940; at their HQ in Paris there was only one phone line, and initiative at the front was frowned on, discouraged even. The British Army in France under General Gort was ostensibly under french command, but when he realised the French divisions in his area - around where the Germans had punched a hole in the French lines - he ordered a retreat back to the Channel coast. Some French divisions in the west wanted to fight on, as did Charles de Gaulle with his tank command. As with the British Army French commanders saw the tank as infantry support, and de Gaulle was seen as an impertinent outsider.

Even after the British Army had withdrawn from Dunkirk and elsewhere on the Channel coast some French divisions fought on until forced to surrender for lack of ordnance. A large number withdrew with the British Army to English Channel ports and formed the Free French Brigade under de Gaulle. They persuaded French commanders in North Africa during Operation Torch to at least down arms if not join the Free French. The French Navy, remembering the Royal Navy's destruction of the French Fleet at Oran, refused at first to join the Americans and British fleets but later relented. There was fighting spirit, but not all Frenchmen wished to side with de Gaulle, especially not the Communist Maquis in France itself, 'dishing' Gaullist resistance fighters to the Germans and vice versa.

The Germans would've recruited the Indians from POW's in Italy, captured from divisions at Tobruk and elsewhere west from Egypt. It would've been relatively easy to do that, considering the treatment meted out by Italian guards to POWs, and they probably wouldn't have been expected to fight their own kind in North Africa or on the Italian 'boot', and would've been put on the Eastern Front against the Russians or in the west against Americans, British or Free French. No crises of conscience there!

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 29, 2020:

Yes TOM, this was an act of great bestiality.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 29, 2020:

Yes, The hatred for Germany was deep in Russia. This can be gauged from the fact that when General Vlasov appealed to the POWs to join his liberation Army 95% of the POWs refused, preferring to die of hunger in the prison camp then to fight against their brethren. This contrasts with the Indian Legion where the POW soldiers readily joined Subhas Bose.

The French were sidelined but their teeth were taken out. Even Hitler did not expect a victory inside 40 days. One reason was the lack of willpower in the French to stand and fight. In contrast, from the excerpts of the interrogation of General Paulos, I learned that Paulos stated that he was surprised that even small pockets of Russian troops when surrounded fought to the last man and bullet.

tom on September 28, 2020:

first three months of barbarossa ,3million soviet pows ,all died due to starvation,

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on September 28, 2020:

The French were only sidelined, emge, their heads of state Laval and Petain were anti-British. Many Frenchmen joined either the RAF or the Free French navy and army, or joined the Resistance - Gaullist or Communist. Only French Indo-China (Vietnam) downed weapons without a fight against the Japanese, which is probably why the Vietnamese thought the French wouldn't turn a hair if they declared independence.

Enough of that. The Russians certainly weren't going to lie down and let the German tanks roll over them, even though they'd lost many divisions as POWs. What Hitler didn't realise was he'd tapped into an almost unlimited source of manpower that stretched from the Polish border to the Pacific, from the Tundra to the Black, Aral and Caspian Seas, all from divergent ethnic backgrounds but with one thing in common: a hatred for things German that lasted well beyond WWII.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 28, 2020:

Yes, the British did rule in India with consensus and they brought in lot of changes for the good of the people more important they gave the concept of a nation on which Gandhi and Subhash Bose could build. Hitler couldn't understand all this. One thing which I have written in my articles and will be the subject of my forthcoming book is that the emancipation of the Hindus after being ruled for seven centuries by the Muslims was only done by the British. Hitler did admire the English but he at the same time was clear that Germany had to have the upper hand in the world and he thought that if you could subdue Russia everything would be fine. Pretty shortsighted thinking. He should have done his homework better on Russia. Only way he could have had world domination was in case he had knocked out the British like he did the French.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on September 28, 2020:

Hitler enjoyed watching films in the Berghof, so his 'butler' said once. One of the films was of the British in India, defeating great odds (as usual, thin red line sort of stuff), and Hitler asked out aloud how come it was a small country like England could dominate huge tracts of land? He answered himself with his usual hare-brained theories. The upshot of this was he envied the English, envied Britain's place in the world and he wanted a share in the spoils of the Soviet Union. After all, the population of Germany was around three times that of England, twice Britain's as a whole. He didn't stop to think it was largely done by consensus. The Indians profited by having an instant market for its trade and goods, they inherited a comprehensive railway system and free press etc.

I haven't mentioned the cock-ups we made with regards controlling a diverse cultural landmass like India, with its multiple languages and ethnic groups, but by and large there was consensus. And it was one country, like the Soviet Union, despite its diversity. Hitler only understood the 'order of the boot' element of governing.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 27, 2020:

Alan very nicely summed up. As per the military theorist, Sun Tzu war is an art and is to be studied. Clausewitz had laid down the principles of war. Hitler did not follow any of these two thinkers because he mixed up racial and personal prejudice in a military environment. War cannot be fought with compartments and that is where Hitler floundered and he was doomed from day one.

There were many Russians who wanted to join Hitler and overthrow Stalin but he did not give them any proper support. Even the Ukrainian peasants who had welcomed the German army with crosses found to their chagrin that their woman and girls were kidnapped and the men shot dead. This was because he felt that the Slav race was inferior to the German race. The imperial army of Japan had similarly sealed its own future by atrocities against the occupied population. You cannot win a war if the local population is against you and the Japanese were constantly harried by the free Chinese army supported by the Americans in Manchuria.

Hitler also had to face partisan fighters in occupied Russia and they exasperated him. He issued a paper on how to deal with these bandit gangs in 1944 but the theme of this was reprisal and that did not help matters because the resistance to the German army stiffened. The German leader had a myopic view of the eastern front.

Any military campaign to make a mark in world history must be a success. The great conqueror of the world is remembered because they won, like Changez Khan, Alexander, Timur, Babar, and later the British empire. Hitler has a dubious record despite launching the biggest invasion in world history he failed. Winter was one factor only but the main was the Germans did not have the resources to fight the country double their size like Russia and later when the Americans came in they really had no chance at all.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on September 27, 2020:

This is the 'Biggie' emge. You've taken on the kingpin of Hitler's war and taken it apart.

Although Napoleon Bonaparte had lost thousands of men they still worshipped him. The Old Guard oddly saw him as a father figure.

On the other hand Hitler's reputation as a winner took a body blow. Still cock-a-hoop after the fall of France the summer before, the Germans believed in their invincibility, especially after booting out the British and Empire force out of Greece and Crete (despite suffering heavy paratroop losses on Crete).

They just didn't understand the geography and demographics of Russia; perhaps in knowing they had a technological superiority over the Russians they were over-confident. Obviously also they had a distinct advantage over Napoleon's army in 1812 with their transport and ordnance. Their stumbling block - like Napoleon's - was the ground they'd covered from their jump-off points and therefore extended supply lines.

For their part the Soviet forces were demoralised after initial ignominious defeat by the Finns earlier in the war. Their best generals had been sent to the Gulags as a result of Beria's influence on Stalin, and those captured by the Germans were systematically starved, used as guinea pigs, experimented on in Auschwitz and elsewhere.

The long, hot and dry Russian summer misled them until in the short autumn the rains turned the 'roads' into quagmires before hard frost turned those roads into ice and the Germans' precision-made equipment seized up before Moscow, their tanks' tracks were frozen solid and supplies had to be forwarded to the front by - as you say - horse-drawn wagons. The game was up, they realised in the deep snows that followed, when they took Russian prisoners of the Siberian divisions attired for winter warfare with weapons that could be fired by gloved hands. Hitler didn't understand the physical needs his troops had for warm weather gear, fur-lined boots and gloves.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 27, 2020:

Tom, hmm, hmm. I will write about it in an article.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 27, 2020:

Tom, yes, these are terrible figures.

tom on September 27, 2020:

soviets lost 27 million killed

tom on September 27, 2020:

what was your role in kargil war

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 27, 2020:

Yes, Tom, I have seen quite a few on my visit to Russia. Incidentally, the Kargil war saw me take part.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 27, 2020:

Tom, Lt Gen Vlassov was a turncoat and was hanged in Moscow in 1946. Hitler never trusted him and very few POWs joined him, certainly not one million. Thank you for commenting.

tom on September 27, 2020:

great patirotic war inspired several soviet movies,available on youtube.low quality italian,hungarian romanian divisions

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 27, 2020:

Thanks, Tom Elsdon, valid comment

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 27, 2020:

Tom, thank you for commenting. Yes, there were severe limitations to the reach of the Luftwaffe and winter and mud proved the undoing of the German soldiers.

Tom Elsdon on September 27, 2020:

Nice write up and a good cover of a very important campaign of the second world war. Militarily it was a domed campaign from the word go because he mixed up race theories with war. My view is he debased the art of war and paid the price for it.

tom on September 27, 2020:

generals mid and winter defeated hitler, finnish troops fought well,capital was shifted to kubiyshev,siberian horses uesd by russians samara,germans had no bomber that could reach beyond urals,

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