Operation Barbarossa: The Eastern Theater of the War

From the Lecture series: A History of Hitler's Empire, 2nd Edition

By Thomas Childers, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

German troops began moving across the continent in the summer and spring of 1941: millions of men, horses, all sorts of tanks, planes, artillery pieces. The original date for the Soviet invasion had been set for the spring of 1941, as soon as the spring rains stopped, but the weather didn’t cooperate. What happened next?

German troops in Russia.
The Germans enjoyed unparalleled success in the first 48 hours of Operation Barbarossa. (Image: National Archives at College Park/Public domain)

It was one of the rainiest springs in 20th-century European history, which made the terrain in Eastern Poland and in the Soviet Union beyond difficult to negotiate, especially for tanks.

So the military thought about the possibilities of postponing it. Also, Mussolini’s misadventures in Greece and, finally, Yugoslavia meant that Germany sent troops to the south, into Yugoslavia and ultimately into Greece, in the spring, postponing the invasion date for Operation Barbarossa until late June. It would be a costly postponement.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The June Invasion of the Soviet Union

On June 22, 1941, the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa. It was the largest military operation in human history. “The world,” Hitler said, “will hold its breath.”

In the first 48 hours, the Germans enjoyed unparalleled success. They caught the Russian troops completely unprepared, completely by surprise. They overran the initial Red Army positions; the entire Soviet air force was destroyed in 48 hours, almost all of it on the ground, so that the Soviets’ Red Army operated without any significant air cover in these operations.

Learn more about Hitler, Stalin, and Operation Barbarossa.

Hitler’s Planned Move Against the Soviet Union

The Germans, within a matter of days, drove deep into the Soviet Union. There were three army groups: the Northern Group, pressing toward Leningrad; Army Group Center, pressing toward Moscow; and Army Group South, which was headed in the direction of Kiev.

The real objective of Operation Barbarossa was to destroy the Red Army in western Russia within 3–6 weeks. Then the move on Moscow would take place against very little resistance. There would be chaos. Hitler was convinced, and the military people, too, that the Soviet Union would simply crumble and that the Germans would be able to move on.

The Soviets, in the first weeks of Operation Barbarossa—indeed, in the first months, June, into July, into August, into September—suffered absolutely staggering casualties. Hundreds of thousands died in a number of huge battles. Hundreds of prisoners of war taken as the Red Army seemed to be on the verge of collapse.

The Beginning of Problems for Germany

German soldiers surrendering to Russian troops.
The Red Army gave Germans a tough fight during Operation Barbarossa. (Image: RIA Novosti archive/Anatoliy Garanin/CC-BY-SA/3.0/Public domain)

In early October, Hitler ordered the German economy back on a peacetime footing. No winter gear was issued to the German military in the invasion. It was supposed to be over in six weeks. The Red Army, though suffering unbelievable casualties and giving up terrain by the tens and twenties of miles per day, hadn’t given up. In fact, huge pockets of resistance remained behind German lines, and the Germans were suffering lots of casualties themselves.

And, as German lines moved deeper into the Soviet Union, it became more and more difficult to have their supplies reach them. The roads on the German maps of the Soviet Union—what looked like primary roads, turned out to be barely paved, narrow roadways. Other secondary roads turned out to be dirt paths. When the rains started in the fall, the Germans were bogged down.

Difficult Conditions in the East

In the fall of 1941, Germany tried to determine what its objective should be. It had already failed in its first objective—the destruction of the Red Army and Western Russia within six weeks. October brought the first frosts, and the ground hardened again, so the Germans thought, “We can make it forward. The tanks can roll on this terrain.”

It was decided to push toward Moscow. This push began in the fall, but by this time, the Germans had lost about half of the tanks they’d begun the campaign with, not simply to Russian resistance, but just from maintenance problems.

Hitler refused to issue winter gear to his troops. It finally had been brought up in November, when it was clear that they were still fighting in the Soviet Union. Hitler was afraid that if he issued an order for the requisition of winter gear, it would send a signal back to the German population that the war in the Soviet Union was not going to be over in a short period of time at all.

The Russian Counterattack against the Germans

In late November, early December 1941, temperatures on the eastern front dropped below zero Fahrenheit. German military vehicles froze. They hadn’t brought enough antifreeze; in some cases brought none. The tank treads wouldn’t function in the cold.

The machines began to break down, and German troops were wearing summer denim uniforms in temperatures that were below zero. In these circumstances, on December 5–6, 1941, the Russians caught the Germans completely by surprise and launched a massive counterattack before Moscow.

Soviet anti-aircraft gunners on the roof of Moscow's central Hotel "Moskva".
The Red Army’s counteroffensive in Moscow halted the German blitzkrieg in 1941. (Image: RIA Novosti archive, image #887721/Knorring/CC-BY-SA/3.0/Public domain)

German forward units reached Moscow. But this counteroffensive by the Red Army on December 5–6 halted the German advance. It halted the blitzkrieg phase of the war, making clear to Hitler and to his high command that the long war of attrition, which they had so greatly feared, was upon them.

Learn more about the Battle of Moscow.

The World at War

Then, on December 7, 1941, all the way across the world, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the conflict. Germany and Japan had a very loose sort of agreement of mutual support. The Japanese had certainly done nothing to support the Germans to this point, and the Germans weren’t aware the Japanese were going to attack. It was    a surprise.

But, on December 11, 1941, Hitler declared war on the United States, solving Franklin Roosevelt’s domestic problem, since the American public was certainly ready to go to war against Japan. But now, what had been a European war and an Asian war merged into one—something that was truly a world war.

Common Questions about Operation Barbarossa: The Eastern Theater of the War

Q: What challenges did the German troops face during Operation Barbarossa?

When the temperatures on the eastern front dropped below zero Fahrenheit, German military vehicles froze. Also, the German troops were ill-clad for the harsh winters of Russia. These were some of the challenges that the German troops faced challenges during Operation Barbarossa.

Q: When did the Germans launch Operation Barbarossa?

On June 22, 1941, the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa.

Q: Why did Hitler refuse to issue winter gear to his troops who were fighting in Russia?

Hitler was afraid that if he issued an order for the requisition of winter gear, it would send a signal back to the German population that the war in the Soviet Union was not going to be over in a short period of time.

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