June 22, 2011 represented the 70th anniversary of the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II. Considered the greatest invasion in military history, the argument can also be made that it was the greatest mistake as well. The invasion was comprised of 3 army groups – Army Group North, South, and Center – totally 3 million German and Axis Troops. Although it began with unbelievable success, after years of fighting in extreme conditions, the Germans were repulsed and the rapid Soviet advance that would not stop till it reached Berlin itself, the German capital, began.
Army Group Center contained the largest number of tanks and with these it was to drive straight towards Moscow, the Soviet capital. Commanded overall by Field Marshall Fedor von Bock with generals Hoth and Guderian in command of the two panzer groups, basically tank armies, assigned to Army Group Center. Hoth and Guderian’s panzers blew through the Soviet defenses and began a headlong charge deep into enemy territory. Flanking and outmaneuvering numerous Soviet defenses, they trapped hundreds of thousands of enemy troops in an ever growing envelopment. The panzers advanced so quickly that their support infantry eventually became two weeks hard marching behind them. As the gap between supplies and the supporting infantry grew, Hoth’s panzers were ordered to stop and help consolidate the land already taken in addition to aiding Army Group North take Leningrad. Guderian’s panzers were order to drive south and help Army Group South take the rich wheat and oil fields of the Ukraine and the Caucuses. This gave the Red Army ample time to prepare the defenses of Moscow and became the first of many changing priorities of the German army.
Army Group North was to take the Baltic states and the enormous Soviet city of Leningrad. Commanded by Field Marshall von Leeb, Army Group North was comprised of two infantry armies and one panzer group jointly commanded by Reinhardt and von Manstein. As the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had much better roads than Russia, the advance here was incredibly quick. On the Russian side of the advance, however, the panzers quickly outpaced the supporting infantry and ran into similar problems as Army Group Center’s panzers; there was too much distance between the infantry and tanks. Army Group North had to stop the advance in order to regroup and this provided the Soviets time to throw up hasty yet durable defenses of both Leningrad and the road leading to the city. Once the German advance continued, fighting was much harder and a fierce Soviet counter attack nearly repulsed the advance entirely. German training and skill eventually won the day, with the assistance of a panzer corps from Hoth in Army Group Center. By the time the Germans reached Leningrad, however, it was well fortified and the German army settled into a 900 day siege of the city, resulting in over a million men, women, and children starving or freezing to death.
Destroyed Russian KV-1 tank. German Loot from Operation Barbarossa
Army Group South, originally the weakest of the three army groups, was charged with securing the wheat fields of the Ukraine and the Baku oilfields. Commanded by Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt with notable subordinates Kleist and Richenau, Army Group South was compromised of both German armies and inferior armies provided by Germany’s allies with obsolete equipment. Despite this, Army Group South made incredible time and progress, trapping many Soviet armies in the process. Under orders from Hitler, Guderian drove his entire panzer group down from Army Group Center and, meeting up with Kleist’s panzers, they succeeded in capturing nearly 500,000 Russian soldiers. Von Manstein was transferred from Army Group North to Army Group South and the army under his command succeeded in capturing an additional 100,000 Soviet soldiers. All three army groups made great progress in the beginning, advancing hundreds of miles and taking hundreds of thousands of prisoners. The Luftwaffe, the German airforce, completely annihilated the Red Air Force on all fronts in a matter of days. The Soviet Union looked ready to fall.
This would not happen, however. Fanatical Soviet resistance, though crushed, frequently delayed the German advance, costing precious time that the Germans could not afford to lose. Russian defenses rapidly began to stiffen, despite being taken by surprise at the beginning of the invasion. The Red Army, originally poorly led and even more poorly organized, soon began showing real promise as an effective fighting force under skilled leadership. In an remarkable feat of engineering and logistics, entire factories where rooted up from western Russia and transported to the far east of the country where they quickly began spewing out tremendous numbers of tanks, aircraft, trucks, weapons, and anything else the Red Army needed. Finally, hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners were taken in the first several months of the attacks; however, the Soviets replaced the losses with staggering speed. These factors, compiled with German indecisiveness, supply problems, changing orders of attack and the notorious Russian winter eventually spelled defeat for the seemingly unstoppable German Army.
by Alex Smith, MRL staff writer