13. The Invasion of Russia

ADOLF HITLER’S DECISION to invade Soviet Russia brought the first of the two great neutrals into the war. In terms of its long-range consequences, still being worked out, Hitler’s choice may well have been the single most important political decision of the twentieth century. From a generation after the fact, it seems incredible that he could have believed Germany was strong enough to defeat Russia as well as all her other enemies: Britain, the Commonwealth, and an increasingly hostile United States. Not only did he think he could do it, he very nearly succeeded.

Neither partner to the Russo-German Nonaggression Pact was wholly satisfied with it. The Russians were not quite as subservient as the Germans thought they should be, and the Germans were far more successful in the West than the Russians wanted them to be. Russian pressure on Finland and Rumania threatened German sources of raw materials. As early as the end of July in 1940, Hitler said that he really wanted to settle affairs with Russia. However, the Battle of Britain was just getting underway then, and Hitler realized the desirability of avoiding a winter campaign. He decided to wait until the spring. In August, the German high command began military planning, but just on a contingency basis. The Russian Foreign Minister, Vyascheslav Molotov, visited Hitler in Berlin in November of 1940. That was the famous occasion when Hitler told him Britain was finished, and Molotov replied, “Then whose bombers are those overhead, and why are we in this bomb shelter?” Hitler tried unsuccessfully to convince Russia that she should turn her attention eastward. The Russians and the Japanese had already engaged in heavy fighting in Mongolia, but rather than allow this to blow up into a full-scale war, both sides by 1940 were negotiating and damping down the flames. The Japanese felt betrayed by Germany when it signed the Nonaggression Pact, and the Russians did not want to be further involved in eastern Asia when things looked so chancy in Europe. Hitler’s urgings therefore fell on deaf ears. Russia continued to entertain both Baltic and Balkan ambitions.


In December, Hitler issued Fuehrer Directive No. 21, in which he set out the basic lines of Operation Barbarossa, which was the code name for the destruction of Russia. Frederick Barbarossa had been the great medieval Emperor who had led the German contingent to the East on the Third Crusade. Apparently, Hitler forgot that he died there.

As it evolved through the winter, Barbarossa called for a two-stage operation. In the first, the main elements of the Russian forces would be encircled and destroyed as close up to the frontier as might be managed. The second phase was to be a rapid pursuit of whatever remnants were left, and the establishment of a line that ran roughly from Archangel in the north to the Caspian Sea in the south. The Russians were to be definitively finished off by the end of this stage. For the longer-range future, the area from the German stop line as far east as the Ural Mountains was to be dominated by the Luftwaffe. Any surviving Russians could live a precarious, hand-to-mouth existence east of the Urals, where they would be incapable of mounting any threat to the Greater Reich.

Three army groups were assigned to achieve this. Army Group North under General Ritter von Leeb was to attack toward Leningrad, Army Group Center under General von Bock was to head for Smolensk, and Army Group South under General von Rundstedt was to drive for Kiev. In discussion of the plan, Hitler’s generals said they would prefer that the central drive be directed right on Moscow, some 200 miles farther on than Smolensk, but Hitler decided to go for the nearer objective, and keep his options open so that units might be diverted to the north or south as necessary. In this discussion lay the seeds of much future argument and recrimination. The plans were finalized, and troops and commanders allotted in January of 1941, everything to be ready by May 15.

Two things were especially remarkable about the concept. One was the magnitude of it; here were the Germans proposing to take on the largest state in the world, and telling themselves they would knock it out in eight to twelve weeks at the most. The Luftwaffe was a bit uncertain, bothered by the problems of distances, and the Foreign Office was opposed, not from any military qualms, but because von Ribbentrop was the architect of the Russo-German rapprochement. The army remained quite confident, however, that the Russians would give them little trouble.

The other surprising thing was that the Germans were operating in a military intelligence vacuum; they had little idea of how big the Russian Army was, or what its equipment was like, or how good it was. The Russians had showed poorly against Finland, and Hitler insisted on regarding them as Untermenschen, subhumans. For all their reputation for thoroughness, the Germans were remarkably casual about what they were likely to encounter in the Red Army.

Russia was indeed walking soft after the fall of France. Her military experts too had regarded the French Army as the greatest in the world, and the apparent ease with which Germany had overrun it had had a sobering effect on the Russian Army and government. Stalin did not back the Yugoslavs when they appealed for his support, and the Soviets generally took a restrained attitude on the whole Balkan question. They were busily tidying up in other areas, though, and did achieve, in April, a treaty of neutrality with Japan, a major clearing of their flanks that was of great help. The general failure of the Axis powers to concert their diplomatic and military moves was one of their chief shortcomings throughout the war. Stalin himself clung to the hope of peace; he dismissed the German concentration in Poland as merely spring maneuvers and troop rotation. Both the British and the United States governments warned Russia that an invasion was imminent, but Stalin regarded this as a western trick designed to embroil Russia with Germany. He resolutely refused to send out an alert to his armed forces. Not until the early morning hours of June 22 did a war warning go out to the Red Army; most units never got it.

Though both sides disposed of massive forces, neither one was in overwhelming strength. The Germans had about 188 divisions, including a weak fourteen of the Rumanian Army, and a good twenty of the Finnish Army, which called this the Continuation War. Nineteen of the German were armored, but the increase in Panzer divisions was achieved by taking the available tanks and thinning them out through more formations. It looked better on paper, but probably weakened the fighting capacity of the armor. At this time, German industry was operating at well below peak strength; in fact it was at almost peacetime levels of production. Germany had still not faced up to the likelihood of a long war. All of these divisions totaled just over 3,500,000 men, about a million of them non-Germans. There were 3,350 tanks, 7,200 guns, 600,000 vehicles, 625,000 horses—three times as many as Napoleon took to Russia with him—and about 2,500 aircraft of one type or another.

The Russian figures are largely estimates, as Russia has continually been shy of releasing material. They seem to have had about 200 divisions, of which 158 were in the west and facing the German attack; the rest were still in the Far East on guard against the Japanese; later on, the arrival of these battle-tried units was a major factor in stemming the German tide. They had forty-six motorized or armored brigades; at this time Russian armor was not organized on a divisional basis, and these brigades worked out at about twenty-two or -three divisions. All told there were probably 2,300,000 soldiers in European Russia. Of their roughly 6,000 aircraft, most types were obsolete or inferior to their German counterparts. On the other hand, they may have had as many as 10,000 tanks, the best of which came as a very rude surprise to the Panzers.

On the night of June 21-22, 1941, the entire German Army crouched in its jump-off positions, like a cat ready to spring. The Russians remained determinedly unconcerned, and German soldiers in position along the Neimen watched the last Russian trains chugging over the bridges, pathetically fulfilling Stalin’s bargain with Hitler, bringing supplies of strategic materials to Germany. The Russians were concentrated in depth along the frontier, ripe for the deep envelopment tactics the Germans were going to employ, and completely unaware of the danger in which they lay. Later on, their retreat—for those who survived to make it—was billed as Stalin’s plan to draw the invader deep into Russia and destroy him, but their initial dispositions belied this; they were caught absolutely flatfooted. Democratic governments are not the only ones taken by surprise.

At 0300 on the morning of the 22nd, the front opened up with a flash and a roar. Guns lighted the sky from the Baltic to the Black Sea; it was as if the sun were rising in the west. Tanks lurched across the frontier, and the Luftwaffe droned overhead, on its way to Russian airfields where the planes were lined up in neat rows, ready to be bombed and strafed in the first light of dawn. The Russian units on the frontier were swamped, tumbled out of their huts and holes before they even knew they were at war. As the sun climbed the eastern sky, the battle that was to be over in eight weeks, the battle that was to be the culmination of Adolf Hitler’s life and the justification of his philosophy, the battle that ended in the ruins of Berlin some two hundred weeks later, began at last.

Wherever they could, the Russians fought. Fierce and tenacious fighters, expecting little mercy and giving none, units rallied and tried to pull themselves together. But they had not extensively fortified Poland or the Baltic states; the speed of the Germans was so great that there was little to rally around. In many places, the chain of command simply collapsed, and the Russian high command appeared completely stunned by the attack and its viciousness. While some formations held hard and either fought their way clear or faded into the forests to continue their battle, others milled helplessly about, bombed and strafed, then shelled by passing tanks, until they fell before the advancing infantry. Within the first few days it looked as if the Germans were well ahead of their own predictions, and the war would soon be won.

Army Group North, advancing toward Leningrad, had no trouble clearing the Baltic states; they reached the Dvina by the end of the month, and by the first week of July they were on native Russian soil. Only as they neared Leningrad itself did they begin to slow down, with their tanks and their supply system both overextended. Army Group Center made fantastic progress, surrounding and taking a quarter of a million prisoners west of Minsk. They rolled on toward Smolensk, where they took another quarter of a million. Time and again the Panzers slashed through weak Russian lines and encircled thousands of still-fighting soldiers, who then, cut off and with supplies dwindling, surrendered or were wiped out. Army Group South was slowed by rains and strong Russian resistance, but nonetheless made steady progress toward Kiev. The Russians were hampered by their lack of prepared positions, by their antiquated command structure and poor communications, and by their party apparatus, which put political commissars at all levels and made them co-commanders, so that military decisions were constantly being upstaged by political posturing. Within two weeks, the German high command believed that the first phase of its operation was complete, that the Russian Army was all but wiped out, and that the Wehrmacht was ready to enter the pursuit and mopping-up phase.

In late July and early August, the Germans threw the game away. The flaws in the plan, and indeed in the entire German system, began to show. On both the military and the political level, things started to go wrong.

Dictatorships not being subject to the sort of press and public criticism that other states are, Adolf Hitler had by now come to believe in his own infallibility; so far, every time his generals had said one thing and he had said another, he had been right. They had been wrong about the Rhineland, he had been right; they had been wrong about Czechoslovakia, he had been right; and so it had gone. It did not occur to him that these previous encounters had been matters of political intuition, and that now he was meddling in affairs of military professionalism. The generals wanted to drive on straight to Moscow; they assessed that Moscow was the heart of Russia and of communism, and that Stalin would be forced, want to or not, to commit everything he had to the defense of the city. Once he did so, they could destroy the remnants of the Red Army, and the war would be won.

Hitler waffled. He decided that the armor ought to be pulled out of Army Group Center, which could continue its advance solely with its infantry formations. This armor would be allocated to Army Group North, to help it get to Leningrad, and to Army Group South, to bolster its increasingly successful advance toward the Crimea and the industrial area of the Donets Basin. There was about a week of protest and argument by the generals, which only served to reinforce Hitler’s conviction that he was right, and then the transfers began. The result was that the Russians gained badly needed breathing space—this became their equivalent of the “miracle of Dunkirk”—and the German armor, though it had some time to catch its breath, lost it again by running back and forth parallel to the front. The decision and the reorganization attendant upon it cost the Germans more time than the side-trip into the Balkans before the campaign began.

The other difficulty was that military considerations became subordinated to some of the more hare-brained Nazi ideological preconceptions. Communism was not popular in large parts of Russia; the vast, rich Ukraine, for example, had tried to break away from Russia after the Revolution and into the twenties. As an ally it would have provided an enormous amount of territory, resources, and population for Germany. When the first German Army units entered the Ukraine, they were greeted as liberators by the local inhabitants. Not since the Anschluss had German troops been treated to girls throwing flowers and men breaking out the wine bottles for them. Nazi ideology, however, dictated that Ukrainians were Slavs, and Slavs were subhuman, fit only to serve as slaves for the Master Race until they died off. Within weeks in the rear areas, the Jew-hunters and the political squads were at work, rounding up, exterminating, robbing, raping, and killing. Soon there were no more pretty girls by the side of the road throwing flowers; there were only bitter men throwing Molotov cocktails. The Master Race found that even it could not afford gratuitously to alienate several millions of people.

What Hitler casually threw away, Stalin picked up. In the early weeks of the war, the regime appealed to all Russians to help save communism, and to wage war to the utmost against the bourgeois Fascists who came to destroy the one true state. The response to this was limited, and as the crisis mounted, as the enemy neared the gates of Moscow and Leningrad, there was a change of emphasis. The political commissars disappeared from the army units, and communism was less stressed in the propaganda broadcasts. It was now the sacred soil that was under the boot of the oppressor; Holy Mother Russia was in danger, and peasants who were at best lukewarm to world communism had no doubts about the worth of Holy Mother Russia. Later, communism would come out of the shadows triumphant again, but in the dark hours of 1941 and 1942, Russians fought for the Motherland, and as they always had, they fought with a stolid tenacity that ultimately took its toll of German machines and men. Germany not only bled to death in Russia, she also made enemies of millions who might have bled for her.

While Hitler and his generals squabbled, the drive went on. All through a hot August the tanks and infantry plowed across the great plains. Army Group South now began to break clear and around Uman it surrounded twenty Russian divisions and wiped them out. By the end of August, it was closing up to the Dnieper River; Odessa was surrounded and cut off. A huge mass of Russians was surrounded at Kiev, and late in September more than half a million surrendered. Now, on the entire southern half of the front, it seemed as if the Germans faced little but the remnants of Russian units. In the north, Ritter von Leeb had closed in on Leningrad; coming up through the Baltic states the Germans were again hailed as liberators from the hated Bolsheviks. The Finns in the farther north returned to their old frontiers, and then stopped. And up at the very top of the map, General von Falkenhorst, hero of the Norwegian campaign, had made some progress toward Murmansk when increasingly bad country, terrible weather, and Hitler’s decision that taking Murmansk was unnecessary brought him to a halt.

The machine was showing wear by now. The troops were dog-tired, and the vehicles were in need of overhaul. There were beginning to be partisan attacks on the supply lines. The Russians looked to be almost finished, yet it took most of the German attention for most of September to wipe out the Kiev pocket and to straighten out a line that ran roughly from Leningrad to the Crimea.

While this was going on, Hitler changed his mind once again. He decided his generals might have been right after all—not that he phrased it that way—and that the Germans should indeed go for Moscow. So he pulled the Panzers out of Army Group North and sent them south once more. Leningrad was to be blockaded and starved to death, rather than taken. And in the south, though he would let von Rundstedt continue to Rostov on the Don, he again withdrew armored units and sent them back to Army Group Center. Once more his tired tankers ran up and down behind the lines, wearing out treads and engines. Nonetheless, by the first of October—with a touch of fall in the air—they were ready to go again.

All these diversions and to-ings and fro-ings had given the Red armies in the center about six weeks’ respite, and they had built up firm defenses on the direct route from Smolensk to Moscow. The Germans hit these with everything they had on the first of October, and within a week, the firm defenses were shattered beyond repair. More than 650,000 men were entrapped around Bryansk and Vyazma, and left to the infantry to clear up while the Panzers rolled on. With one eye on the calendar, the army commanders urged their tired soldiers forward.

On October 7, it began to rain. It rained for three weeks. Trucks, guns, and tanks went belly-deep and were hauled forward by brute strength. The troops shivered and tried without success to find dry spots somewhere in the sea of Russian mud. But though the advance was slowed, it was not stopped. Up in the north, von Leeb extended his lines and pushed east toward the areas from which Leningrad drew its supplies across Lake Ladoga. Von Rundstedt reached Taganrog, the last town before Rostov, and his troops broke into the Crimea. The Russians threw in what ought according to German intelligence to be the end of their reserves in front of Moscow, but Mozhaisk fell on October 20, and it was the last town before the capital. The German General Staff began planning the big, ultimate battle of encirclement and annihilation that would take Moscow, and wipe out Bolshevism and the Red Army once and for all. As an omen of success, the rain stopped at the end of the month.

Both sides were at their last gasp. Both knew that they had only a few more weeks to go. Winter would come soon; overnight the ground would freeze, and everything else along with it, and the snow would whistle across the steppes. If the Germans could not wrap up the campaign before that, they could not do it this year, maybe not at all. If the Russians could only last until General Winter came to the rescue, they might well live to fight again. Everything hinged on the next few weeks, perhaps even the next few days, for no one knew when winter would arrive.

By any reasonable numerical measure the Germans had won already. They were in possession of two-thirds of Russia’s coal reserves, and three-quarters of her iron ore. Thirty-five million Russians were in occupied territory. Thousands of Russian tanks, guns, and aircraft had been destroyed or captured, and the Red Army had been all but wiped out. In fact, if there were really two and a half million Russian soldiers in European Russia in June, it had been wiped out almost twice already. It had even now been the greatest campaign in history; Napoleon’s efforts were amateurish compared with this.

The Germans had paid a price for it. Their tanks were down to one-third strength, and their divisions at little more than half-strength. There were few supplies and no reserves. As the rains dwindled and the ground hardened in early November, the Wehrmacht gathered itself for the last spring; the way home led through Moscow.

Army Group Center jumped off on November 15. It made gains north and south of Moscow. But in front of Moscow the Russians replied with a desperate counteroffensive that held the central German forces on the defensive for two weeks. Day after day the Reds came down the road from Moscow to Mozhaisk, taking monstrous casualties, but pinning the Germans where they were. The Russians were now throwing better planes into the battle, and the Luftwaffe no longer quite had the sky to itself. Then there was another ill omen: a Russian armored brigade showed up riding British tanks; when Hitler invaded Russia, the great anti-Communist, Churchill, rose in the House of Commons to announce in his gravelly voice, “If Hitler were to invade Hell, I should find occasion to make a favorable reference to the Devil.” Here now was the first fruit of that favorable reference. The new Russian T-34 tank was in action, better by far than anything the Germans possessed. Even more surprising, the Russians seemed to be finding new troops, this time battle-hardened divisions fresh from facing the Japanese in Siberia. The dead piled up along the Moscow road. Still the Wehrmacht ground forward, but at increasingly heavy cost.

The first real Russian success was in the south, where von Rundstedt’s advanced units got cut off by a counterattack at Rostov. When von Rundstedt asked permission to pull out, Hitler sacked him; there was to be no retreat.

That was incidental; around Moscow the great decision was being taken. The Germans were still making progress on the first of December. They still hoped to close a great pincer around the city, the heart of both communism and the entire Russian military and communications network. To the north, they were even with the city; to the south, they were well past it, and turning northward. The trap was beginning to close. It looked as if victory were within their grasp.

The hand froze before it could clutch. Winter arrived early, the earliest and the hardest winter in half a century. The Germans had expected to win by now; they had summer uniforms, summer equipment, and lightweight oil in their guns and engines. Overnight the temperature dropped and kept on dropping; it finally clunked to the bottom at forty degrees below zero, with the wind blowing straight from the North Pole. A last spastic effort carried the German 3rd and 4th Panzer Groups to within twenty-five miles of Moscow. That was as close as they ever got; no free German would march through Red Square in this war, and precious few of those German prisoners who did would ever come home to tell about it. The German drive collapsed on the 5th; the Russians, incredibly, opened a counteroffensive on the 6th. The next day, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

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