Operation Barbarossa was the code name for the German military campaign in the East to conquer the Soviet Union during World War II. Launched on June 22, 1941, it was a massive invasion of a vast expanse of territory, which involved about 4.5 million troops of the Axis powers along an 1800-mile front. Adolf Hitler named this military operation “Barbarossa”, which was the nickname of Federick I, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and leader of the Third Crusade; a German historical character whom Hitler admired.
The invasion of the Soviet Union was in Hitler’s mind since 1925. He wrote it in Mein Kampf. Hitler’s assertion was that the German people needed living space, or “Lebensraum,” and for that, Germany had to turn to the East. By invading the Soviet Union Hitler also planned to put an end to communism; an ideology the Nazis abhorred so much. Operation Barbarossa had been planned in December 1940, with its military preparations being kept secret, since Germany and the Soviet Union had signed a non-aggression pact in August 1939; it was called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which had a secret clause that parceled out Poland and Eastern Europe as German and Soviet “sphere of influence.”
The invasion of Russia was carried out by three German army groups. 1) Army Group North, commanded by Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, was composed of 26 divisions organized into the 16th Army of Ernst Busch, the 4th Panzer Group of Erich Hoepner, the 18th Army of Georg von Küchler, and the Air Fleet I of Alfred Keller; 2) Army Group Center, led by Fedor von Bock, consisted of 49 divisions arranged into 4th Army of Günther von Kluge, the 2nd Panzer Group of Heinz Guderian, 3rd Panzer Group of Hermann Hoth, the 9th Army of Strauss, and Air Fleet II of Alber Kesselring; 3) Army Group South, commanded by Gerd von Rundstedt, was made up of 41 divisions lined up into the 6th Army of Walther von Reichenau, the 17th Army of Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, the 1rst Panzer Group of Paul Ludwig von Kleist, the 11th Army of Eugen Ritter von Schobert. The Army Group South was augmented with Hungarian, Romanian, and Italian army divisions; and the 250th Spanish “Blue” Infantry Division, which was a formation of Spanish Falangists and Nazi sympathizers.
The invasion began at 03:00 hours, on Sunday, June 22, 1941, using 3 million soldiers, 3,600 tanks, 7,180 artillery guns, and 1,830 planes. After having destroyed more than 3,100 Soviet planes, the Luftwaffe achieved air superiority in the first couple of days. On the first day, the 4th Panzer Group of Army Group North, with a strength of 600 tanks, crossed the River Neman and advanced 50 miles.
Four Soviet armies opposed the German Army Group Center: the 3rd, 4th, 10th and 11th Armies. These Soviet armies occupied a salient which jutted into German occupied Polish territory with the Soviet salient’s center at Bialystok. Beyond Bialystok was Minsk, which was a key railway junction. The goals of two Panzer Groups of Army Group Center was to meet at Minsk, denying an escape route to the Red Army from the salient. The 3rd Panzer Group pierced a breach through the junction of two Soviet Fronts in the North of the salient, crossing the River Neman while the 2nd Panzer Group crossed the Western Bug river in the South. While the Panzer Groups attacked, the Wehrmacht Army Group Center infantry armies struck at the salient. This action eventually encircled Soviet troops at Bialystok.
After 17 days of campaign, 300,000 Russian soldiers had been captured, and 2,500 tanks, and 1,400 artillery guns destroyed in the center of territory attacked by Army Group Center. The German advance had been so fast that it had strained dangerously thin the whole army’s supply and communication lines. The Army Group Center stopped on the Desna for the supply units to catch up. Moscow seemed destined to fall as the Red Army was on the brink of total collapse. However, Hitler ordered 2nd Panzer Group led by Guderian to move south-east on to Kiev, while 1rst Panzer Group was ordered north, depriving the Army Group Center of two of its most potent fighting forces. Guderian was very angered by this order.
Although the quick mechanized sweeps north and south were as successful as the initial assault on June 22, with thousands of Russian soldiers taken prisoners and large quantities of Russian equipment destroyed, the orders given by Hitler had one direct effect; loss of time. The Russian Winter arose before the Germans had reached the objectives set by Hitler. The German Army was not equipped to cope with the cold winter conditions which greatly hindered the German fighting capability.
Operation Barbarossa Footage