Posts Tagged ‘Operation Barbarossa’

I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving holiday…I know we did.  There was too much food, all of it good.  There was no Black Friday shopping, which was awesome!!  Well actually, there was a bit of shopping on Friday and Saturday, but Friday’s was in the early afternoon, well after all the diehards were pretty much done and back home in bed.

So let’s see, what do we have for today?…Well, it’s my wife’s birthday, so “Happy Birthday!!” to her.  I’m not sure she knows it, but her presents are all ready to go, so we’ll keep that a secret.

Let me check the official Today’s History Lesson spreadsheet…

Here we go…

The Tripartite Pact was an economic, military, and political alliance that was originally set up between three countries (hence the “Tri” in Tripartite).  Germany, Italy, and Japan were the original signers in September of 1940, but the Pact wasn’t strictly limited to them.

As 1941 approached, the Russians were approached about joining the Pact.  It’s a bit unusual, given the natural opposition that Hitler’s National Socialism felt for Russia’s Communism.  But Adolf Hitler’s designs on Russia were not strictly military in scope.  Russia’s tremendous natural resources had as big a target on them as did her military forces.  And if they could be taken peaceably, so much the better.

So Vyacheslav Molotov was invited to Berlin in mid-November and given the Tripartite Pact sales pitch.  And there was some hope that Molotov would listen.  The Russians and Germans had already done business on the Polish issue a couple of years before.  And Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia were all within days of joining the Tripartite Pact.

But those hopes proved fleeting, as the meetings did more to highlight Russo-Germans disagreements than they did to create common ground.  Molotov left Berlin having refused Germany’s “peaceful” overtures, and from the German perspective, the die was cast.  Or maybe “the die was confirmed” is a better phrase, since regardless of the outcome, Hitler had decided years before that Russian soil would be invaded at some point.

On November 29, 1940, the German High Command offered up a proposal for the invasion of the Soviet Union.  The draft included three massive Army Groups, setting off along an 1,800-mile front.  Army Group North would make for Leningrad.  Army Group Centre would have the capital of Moscow as its goal.  And Army Group South was tasked with the capture of Kiev, to be followed with a push to Stalingrad via Kharkov.

Within three weeks, the draft would be polished, planned, and finalized as Directive No. 18…Operation Barbarossa.

If Hitler couldn’t get what he wanted the easy way, he would get what he wanted by any means possible…

Recommended Reading:  WorldWar-2.net – One of the best World War II timelines available anywhere.  A wee bit clunky to navigate, but loaded with information.

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The day after the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa (their invasion of Russia), Russian dictator Joseph Stalin launched something of his own.


It didn’t involve a massive counterattack or armies or artillery or aircraft, which is pretty obvious because those things were busy being smashed to bits by the Wehrmacht’s three massive army groups, assisted by the Luftwaffe’s plethora of planes.  Stavka was a political-military war command that was designed “to effect the most centralised and flexible command of the Armed Forces in the conditions of the war which had just begun.”  It was peopled by the most capable Soviet military minds of the time (and the best available men still above ground after Stalin’s late-1930s purges).

And as June of 1941 rolled into October, that organization of “centralised command” had been reorganized twice and had witnessed the Germans roll over the western steppes of its homeland much like room-temperature butter is spread over hot toast.  The one constant was Joseph Stalin’s presence at the top.

This brutal no-holds-barred war, which halted for a bit after the Germans captured Smolensk in early August,  had fired up again as Hitler’s minions launched Operation Typhoon (the final push to Moscow, which we’ll discuss sometime), on October 2nd.

Little more than 100 miles west of the capital, the Germans were working their encirclement magic on the city of Vyaz’ma.  Lt. Gen. Konstantin Rokossovskiy was ordered to drop everything, turn over his command, pack up his staff, and make straight for Vyaz’ma, where five infantry divisions would be waiting for his counterattack orders.  When he arrived, not only were there not five divisions, there weren’t any…except the Third and Fourth German Panzer divisions, which proceeded to complete the encirclement the next day.  Rokossovskiy barely escaped.

Straight south (and further from Moscow), Bryansk was having a similar experience.

And now, on October 8, 1941, there was much to report to Stavka.  Much of the report was bad news.

Of course, there were the Vyaz’ma and Bryansk pockets.  Rokossivskiy’s Sixteenth Army?…the one he was ordered to leave behind?…it was in the process of being encircled as well.  And further south, Mariupol, a large port on the Sea of Azov, had fallen to the Germans.  As Marshal Georgiy Zhukov called the meeting of Stavka that morning gave the news, he said “almost all routes to Moscow are open.”  Stalin, Stavka, the capital, and the Soviet Union were in serious trouble.

If there was any good news for the day, it was the weather forecast.  The autumn rains had arrived, which would hopefully serve to slow the rapid German advance.  But that was pretty much it.  The Germans were once again looking unassailable…and the Russians pretty vulnerable.

Recommended Reading: Absolute War

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Our trip to Phoenix was good, though it ended quickly.  While I don’t much like to fly (and I’ve made no secret of that), the flights were quite smooth.  Our son is doing well…we got to see his apartment for the first time, and it’s pretty nice.  I really like the stark beauty of the Arizona desert, but the city is so large and busy that it’s hard to really do anything on our own (much less really enjoy the area) until we’ve spent a little more time there.  We’ll go back again, but for now, it was good to see him.

Let’s touch on a bit of history to get back into the swing of things.

As August of 1941 prepared to roll into September, it was hard to characterize Operation Barbarossa as anything other than a smashing success for the Germans.  One by one, the cities of western Russia fell to the forces of the Wehrmacht.  We’ve dedicated time to the capture of VitebskMinsk, and Smolensk in the course of all our discussions, and made mention of a couple others, like Kiev and Kharkov.  So those of you that are regular readers are well aware that the early months of this massive German “gamble in the east” were heady ones for the invaders.

In the north, Army Group North was bearing down on Leningrad.  Situated on the Gulf of Finland, this city of 4 million people was much more than a large Russian seaport.  As the place where the Revolution of 1905 began, it was also considered the cradle of the Communist movement.  And those two things made it a doubly important target for Adolf Hitler’s legions.

And even as the German Panzers approached the outskirts of the city, there was some doubt as to the next steps.  In his book The Siege of Leningrad (now approaching 40 years since publication), Leon Goure writes, “The stage was thus set for the final assault on the city.  But at that time it was by no means certain that such an assault would be made, because Hitler was unable to decide what to do with Leningrad once it was captured.”

Some of Hitler’s generals agreed, desiring that Moscow be the primary target and that Leningrad be left to wither in an encirclement.  Goure goes on to write that Hitler really wanted to avoid a direct attack on the city for a couple of reasons.  First, he believed the Soviet propoganda promising a bloody house-to-house defense.  He had already seen a teaser of that kind of warfare in places like Kiev, Smolensk, and Tallin, and it was costly in both men and equipment.  But second, the German dictator wasn’t really sure what to do with the city’s 4 million people.  He suggested forcing them from the city and allowing them to travel further east, but the Generals knew that was impractical.

As the Generals debated, the Army successes continued.  On August 30, 1941, the Germans cut the Leningrad-Ovinichi rail line and had advanced as far as the Neva River at Ivanovskoe.  The railroad was the last one out of Leningrad.  If people were going to get out of the city, it would likely be on foot.

For all intents and purposes, Leningrad was now surrounded.  The only open area was directly east of the city, towards Lake Ladoga, and the Germans were trying (thus far unsuccessfully) to get Mannerheim and his Finnish troops to take that area.  The Siege of Leningrad was about to begin.

Recommended Reading: The Siege of Leningrad – There are numerous worthy books on the Siege.  This happens to be the “grandfather” in my collection, so it gets the nod today.

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On June 29, 1941, Minsk was taken by the Germans.  The capital of Belarus was a major victory for the Wehrmacht, made all the more remarkable by the circumstances surrounding its capture.

Operation Barbarossa had begun just eight days before, and Army Group Centre had set off with Moscow as its ultimate goal.  Field Marshal Fedor von Bock had at his disposal nearly 50 divisions, including 9 Panzer armored divisions.  And when the starting gun sounded, they got right to work against Red Army General Dmitry Pavlov’s 45 divisions comprising the Western Front.

Ripping to the east, tank master General Heinz Guderian’s forces and General Hermann Hoth’s forces had, by the 27th,  linked up east of Minsk and cut off any Russian escape.  In five days, the Panzers had covered an astounding 200 miles and encircled Minsk.  Meanwhile, back west, the 4th and 9th German armies linked up east of Bialystok on the 28th.  If you go to a map and find the cities of Bialystok and Minsk (like maybe here) and draw a circle around each, you’ll see what the Germans accomplished in six days…pretty incredible.

The Russian Western Front was, in the space of a week, reduced to almost nothing.  What had begun as a force of 675,000 men had been chopped by nearly two-thirds…more than 60%.  More than 285,000 Red Army soldiers were captured, with the remaining 135,000 or so killed in action.  It was a humiliating loss for the Russians, but for General Pavlov, it was worse.  As Bialystok was encircled, he was stripped of his command.  The day after Minsk fell, Pavlov (along with his staff) was stripped of his life.

Despite the rapid movement, there were already concerns high in the German ranks, whispers that the advance was not quick enough, and the forward elements were being bogged down.  But to anyone looking on from the outside, it appeared that a Russian defeat was not only inevitable, it was imminent.

Recommended Reading: The Eastern Front – Day By Day, 1941-45

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June 22, 1941 is a day that needs no major introduction to students of World War II.  Operation Barbarossa was (and still is) the largest offensive in military history.  With most of Western Europe now under the shadow of the swastika, Adolf Hitler turned his legions east in a titanic blitzkrieg of men, tanks, guns, and planes.  The gamble he took, unparalleled in history, was that the Russian military was a house of cards that he could overrun it before it could get fully organized.

For Hitler, the gamble had worked on a smaller scale in France and the Low Countries a year before, so he was confident of its success again.  And the reality of Stalin’s paranoia-and-power-induced purges of the preceding years had not been lost in the planning.  Germany’s military leadership knew they’d be facing not only officers with little experience, but officers that would be more tentative, terrified of making a wrong move that would cost them their lives.  Hitler wasn’t being totally unreasonable when he said that “we have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.”

But what might need a bit of an introduction is Operation Reindeer.  Initiated along with Barbarossa, the offensive was much smaller in scale, involving a couple of divisions stationed in northern Norway.  Their objective was to cross the border into northern Finland, specifically the Petsamo region.  The area was known for its nickel mines, and the Germans desired to grab them before the Russians.  Reindeer was launched on June 22, 1941 with the 2nd and 3rd Mountain Divisions entering Finland.

And like the 4 million men setting off to the south and east, Reindeer got going without a hitch.  In fact, there was no fighting to speak of in Petsamo until they reached the Red Army defenses on the Litsa River.  Operation Silver Fox, the follow-up to Reindeer, had as its goal the capture of Murmansk.  But strong Russian defenses and political pressures – the U.S. notified Finland that cutting off Lend-Lease’s main supply port with Russia would have very negative consequences – meant that Murmansk would remain in Soviet hands throughout the war.

So in the end, Operation Reindeer was a very minor operation that had little bearing on the war.  It was a rather isolated outpost that would, with the turn of fortunes against Germany, eventually be abandoned.

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Joseph Stalin really didn’t want to believe that his country was about to be invaded.  It’s somewhat strange that he thought this way, since he was just about the only one in Russia who did.  He had been warned by the Americans.  He had been warned by the British.  And he had been warned (repeatedly) by members of his own staff and his heads of intelligence.

As 1941 was just getting underway, the Soviet Defence Commissariat was raising flags about the increase in German troop strength near the Russian borders and the menace it raised.  On April 15th, General Zhukov’s intelligence chief reported that “A major transfer of troops…by railway, roads, motor columns and organised marches between 1 and 15 April, from the heart of Germany…towards the Soviet borders.”  By early May, the NKVD (a group we’ve discussed before) was warning of open military preparations in occupied Poland.  As May turned to June, there were more incidents of German agents dropping into Soviet territory.  If anything smacked of “impending attack”, these signs certainly did.

And still Stalin did not believe what he was seeing.  The British ambassador was called home from Moscow and took his wife with him.  When Zhukov met with Stalin, Chris Bellamy writes (in his book Absolute War) that “Stalin was by now in his most paranoid, unbending and unreceptive mood, convinced of British and German attempts to trap him into a war he was not ready to fight, and seeing ‘disinformers’, ‘traitors’, and ‘wreckers’ in every shadow.”  His fear of provoking the Germans reached the point that he ordered  his news agency, TASS, to send a message to Germany, reasurring them that the Soviets were still on friendly terms.

All the while, the Hitler’s Field Marshals and Generals were putting the final pieces in places for one of the greatest invasions ever attempted.  More than 150 divisions, with thousands of tanks, artillery pieces too numerous to count, and planes that blotted the noon-day sun were poised for action.

And on June 14, 1941 (just one day after TASS’s communique), more information arrived.  This time it came not from reconnaissance, nor from border patrols, nor from captured agents.  It came from the Red Orchestra, and that source packed a punch.  The Red Orchestra was, without question, one of the most successful spy organizations of the entire war.  Three different spy rings made up the Red Orchestra and each had a center.  There was one in charge of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.  Another ring was centered in Berlin.  The third (and most successful), the Lucy Ring, was run from Switzerland.  Its contacts reached into some of the highest echelons of the German government, including the Wehrmacht’s communications department and a communications officer in Army Group Centre, currently sitting on the Soviet border.  The information these spies transmitted back home was of impeccably high quality.

And on the 14th, they sent word of a confirmed invasion date…June 22nd.  This was not data to be casually tossed aside.  And yet that’s precisely what Stalin did, with a brutally coarse manner typical of the Soviet leader.  His generals had a grave concern bordering on panic, and did whatever was possible to make Stalin see beyond his own thinking, but nothing worked.

If the Red Orchestra’s information, which in numerous cases came straight from the German High Command, was tossed aside by Joseph Stalin, then no other information save the bombs and bullets and artillery shells would suffice, either.  It wouldn’t be the first time he ignored information dropped in his lap.

Recommended Reading:  The Red Orchestra – I read this in college as an assignment for a military history class, and found it fascinating.  If you can locate a copy, check it out.

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The early days of Operation Barbarossa were heady ones for the German Wehrmacht, and hapless ones for their Red Army opponents.  The Soviet military had been caught in a pretty bad state of preparation by the well-oiled machine that was their enemy, and they could do little but fall back, die, or surrender.

The small city of Vitebsk fell rather quietly on July 11th, less than 3 weeks after hostilities had begun.  Situated about 250 miles straight west of Moscow, Vitebsk was (at the time of the Second World War) a modest-sized town or small city.  But it played host to a significant Jewish population.  Those unable to escape the German nets were rounded up and placed in a “ghetto district” inside the town, and there they lived for several months…in pretty lousy conditions.

It doesn’t take a doctor’s skills to realize that, once the weather turned, bad things would start to happen.  All these people, in overcrowded conditions, with a poor diet, suspect hygiene, and a dearth of medical supplies, would serve to become a breeding ground for disease.

The Germans recognized this, although they somehow overlooked the fact that it was they who were the creators of the ghetto and its conditions.  And while they did nothing to prevent this from happening, they were the first to take action after the fact.

Keep in mind that while there was some sickness and malnutrition in the Vitebsk Ghetto, it certainly hadn’t reached epidemic proportions or even become a serious problem…at least not in the sources I consulted.

So the Germans responded to the potential problem by increasing the food supplies to the Ghetto, by sending in medical teams to treat disease, and providing additional clothing to the Jews living there.

That’s what you’d like me to write…but I can’t.

On October 8, 1941, the Germans (using the pretext of squalid living conditions and rampant disease) began the systematic liquidation of the Vitebsk Ghetto.  Over the next three days, at least 16,000 Jews would be removed and taken to the Vibte River outside of town, where they were shot and dumped.

When we consider the Holocaust, we often think of the concentration camps and the prisoners clad in stripes, their hollow faces peering from behind barbed wire.  Or we think of the death camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka, with their grisly “hospitals”, gas chambers, and ovens.  But there were dozens of these “smaller” atrocities carried during of the Third Reich.

Recommended Reading: The Eastern Front – Day By Day, 1941-45

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Yesterday, the German army was standing at the edge of Moscow, with victory little more than a dozen miles away.  Yesterday, Army Group Centre had reached its goal, bloodied, exhausted, and stretched almost to the breaking point.  Yesterday, Adolf Hitler’s intelligence network said the Russians didn’t have enough left in the tank (nor enough tanks) to strike back.  Yesterday, warmth for the Wehrmacht and fuel for the Panzers, along with a little rest, were all that was required to surround the Soviet capital and force its surrender.

But that was Yesterday.

Today, December 5, 1941, the Russian army awoke with a shocking roar, as more than a million soldiers, nearly 1,000 tanks, and almost 700 aircraft came crashing against the Germans.  Joseph Stalin had taken a desperate gamble and moved many of his troops west from the Far East and Siberia.  Small wonder that when the Uritsky found the Japanese fleet heading for Pearl Harbor, the Russian dictator played hardball with the Japanese.  Troops that would have been used against Japan were now at war…with Germans.

The nearly 60 divisions that launched to the west still only just outnumbered their German foes, but they had advantages more important than numbers.  They were rested and they were well-armed.  They fought at the end of a 6-mile supply chain rather than Germany’s 600-mile support system.  Their vehicles all ran in the bitter cold and the guns on their tanks and artillery all worked.  But most of all, the Russian soldier was warm, being properly outfitted for the deadly Russian winter.

There was no way that Hitler’s order to hold position, given that very day, could be followed.  And so the German forces began to fall back, regardless of Der Fuhrer’s commands.  Moscow, for the time being, would remain in Soviet hands.

Recommended Reading: Operation Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-45

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It’s cold here today, and that’s put me in an “Operation Barbarossa” state of mind.  So let’s take a few minutes today and see how the German army was faring against its Soviet rival on this day in 1941.  When we last visited Army Group Centre, they had just captured Smolensk.  But the fighting for that city had been intense and, with the German supply lines already measuring in the hundreds of miles, it was decided that a rest was needed.

So Army Group Centre rested…for nearly two months.  And then Operation Typhoon, begun on October 2, 1941, sent them off again.  This offensive was to be the final push to Moscow.  On arrival, the Germans planned to, much like Army Group North would attempt at Leningrad, surround the city and force its surrender.

But it was October, and the weather began to play a factor.  Many roads in Russia were mere dirt tracks, and early snowfall with warm ground turned them to impassable mud bogs, slowing the Germans.  But the sustained colder weather (at least initially) then served to help the Germans as it eventually froze the ground, allowing vehicles to move.  On October 18th, Mozhaysk fell to the Wehrmacht, putting Russia’s enemy just 62 miles from Moscow.

The German advance was slowing, but still progressing.  Supply lines were now outrageously long.  Troops were again exhausted, with many units operating at one-third strength.  Only one vehicle in three was still running.  And the German leadership (operating under the assumption that Moscow would fall earlier) still had not provided its soldiers with winter garments.

And then we arrive at December 4, 1941.  Army Group Centre, having pushed 600 miles in less than 6 months, was now on the brink.  Some formations were just 15 miles from Moscow’s center.  Commanders with good binoculars could see the buildings.  I mentioned it before, but in the wee morning hours of the 4th, a daring German rode his motorcycle through the streets of the capital before being shot down…just two miles from the Kremlin.

The German army would need some time to rest, refuel, rearm, and warm up.  Maybe Moscow would need to be surrounded for the entire winter.  Who knew for sure?  Regardless, Moscow was all but theirs…or so they thought.

Recommended Reading: When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler

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I’ve got just a short little piece for today (actually, late tonight).  I wrote about The Red Baron back in April, but he wasn’t the only famous member of the von Richthofen family.  His younger brother Lothar was also an ace in WWI, though he downed only half the number of his sibling’s 80 emeny aircraft…and Lothar survived the War.

There was also another..Wolfram von Richthofen, who died on this day in 1945.  A distant relative to the Richthofen brothers, he also was a WWI pilot, and shot down 8 aircraft, 3 more than required to be called an ace.  He survived the War as well, and went on to much bigger roles.  Wolfram was a commander in the Luftwaffe during the Spanish Civil War, where the Germans cut their teeth on many of the battle tactics they’d use to such great effect in the first half of World War II.

When the Second World War began, our subject was there, in Poland, the Battle of Britain, and the Mediterranean.  When Operation Barbarrossa began, Wolfram was a General, where he managed parts of the air campaigns against Moscow in 1941 and, in late 1942, worked to supply Paulus’ beleaguered troops in Stalingrad.

Wolfram received a very rare (for a Luftwaffe officer) promotion to Field Marshal in February of 1943.  His promotion carries some irony with it as, just weeks before, Hitler had promoted Friedrich Paulus to Field Marshal, assuming he would commit suicide rather than be captured in Stalingrad.  After Paulus’ surrender, Hitler vowed to never promote another officer to Field Marshal again.

The remainder of the war saw Richthofen’s men pretty much on the defensive, but by 1944, health problems were beginning to take their toll, and he was retired late in the year.  He was captured by the Americans in 1945, which was pretty fortunate for him in light of how the Russians often treated their prisoners, but died of his illness (brain cancer) on July 12, 1945.

Recommended Reading: Barbarossa – The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-45 – Another great (and pretty comprehensive) overview that’s immensely readable.

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The subject of Today’s History Lesson is probably pretty obvious to any of you that read my drivel on any kind of regular basis.  I’m a student of World War II, and it’s mostly what gets covered when I write.  So you have a good idea of what’s coming – the start of the most pivotal battle in all of the War.  The Great Patriotic War.  The German invasion of the Soviet Union.  Operation Barbarossa…Operation “Barbaric” is likely as apt a name, given how the two combatants waged this titanic clash.

I’ve been reading “Absolute War” and, early in the text, author Chris Bellamy distinguishes the concepts of “absolute” and “total” war.  In his thinking, “absolute” war is more about the tenacity of the actual fighting that takes place.  In Barbarossa, soldiers on both sides were trained to loathe each other at an ideological level, to consider their opponents as subhuman.  So it wasn’t just a matter of “we want your territory and we want to beat you.”…it was a condition of “we don’t really see any valid reason for your existence, so whether you live or die is what matters, and we want you dead.”  See the difference?  As a result, things like giving prisoners medical attention and food or recognizing the human rights of captured citizens or even allowing surrendering prisoners to live were put aside.

Furthermore, the German and Soviet armies were expected to fight to the death, so military leadership really didn’t care about what happened to their own captured soldiers.  In fact, the Soviet military considered surrender equivalent to treason, so Soviet prisoners who were later freed often had only a bullet in the head to look forward to.

The “total” aspect of Barbarossa was in its engines and reserves…in other words, nearly every industry switched to war-time production and all citizens were expected to build war goods, ship war goods to the edge of battle, or fight with the war goods.

So in the early morning hours of June 22, 1941, as more than 180 German divisions jumped off along nearly 1,800 miles of Soviet border, the fight for territory would actually be secondary to the fight for existence.  And this clash would span nearly four years, cover hundreds of thousands of square miles, witness staggering errors by leadership, see man’s behavior at its basest and most gruesome, and leave in its wake a substantial 8-figure death toll.

To try and grasp even the buildup to Germany’s assault on Soviet Russia moves way beyond the scope of any single entry of Today’s History Lesson.  But the scope of Operation Barbarossa also means that there will be lots to talk about over the months (and years?!?) ahead.

Recommended Reading: Absolute War – Soviet Russia in the Second World War

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