German forces invaded Russia. The Germans advanced on a 2,000 mile-long front. Together with their allies, they were able to mass 3,000,000 troops. Initially, the Russians had 2,000,000 troops. German troops advanced along the whole front. By September, they began laying siege to Leningrad, and then captured Kiev. By the end of October, the Germans had reached Crimea in the south and Moscow's suburbs in the north.
In August 1939 Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non aggression treaty. While the Soviets had no delusions that this would bring perpetual peace with Germany, Stalin believed that the treaty would give the USSR a number of years to prepare for war. He believed that Hitler would first want to defeat Great Britain before turning Eastward. Hitler did indeed hope to defeat Britain first, but when the Battle of Britain failed to defeat the British, Hitler decided to turn East. Starting in February 1941 the Germans began to amass troops close to the border. The attack on the Soviet Union was initially scheduled for May 15 1941, but Hitler’s decision to invade Yugoslavia and Greece forced him to delay the attack.
The German prepared the largest invasion force in history with 3.8 million men, 3,350 tanks, 7,200 artillery pieces and 2,770 aircraft. Stalin had been warned by the British that the Germans were going to attack, but dismissed the warning believing that British trying to draw them into the war. The Soviets had a larger army with over 5 million under arms and another 14 million in reserve. They had more tanks with 23,000 of which 14,700 were combat ready and their best tanks were better than any German tanks. Unfortunately for the Soviets their army was not well organized and they were not prepared for war.
On June 22, 1941 the German army began the invasion of the Soviet Union. Like all their invasions the Germans began their invasion with air attacks across the front and deep into the Soviet Union. The German air attack was successful destroying much of the Soviet command and control. The Germans attack took place simultaneously on four fronts, on the Norhern front through the Baltic States. By July 2, the German offensive had covered 280 miles and was nearing Lenningrad. In the South the German advanced all the way to the outsets of Kiev in the Ukraine. Throughout their advance the Soviets encountered repeated Soviet counterattacks.
The Germans also advanced through Belorussia where they encountered heavy resistance.
A major attack advanced toward Moscow as well. Despite the Germans success the German army came to realize major fact, first that the Soviet Army was larger than they had realize and that they were not going to collapse quickly. Hitler came to the conclusion that he needed to capture the major economic centers of Russia including Leningrad, and the oil in the Caucasus and to put less emphasis on capturing Moscow in order to squeeze the Soviets. The change in direction would prove fatal for the German efforts.
Watch the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the German Wehrmacht invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941
NARRATOR: 3:15 a.m., June 22, 1941 - The German Wehrmacht invade the Soviet Union. Operation, code name Barbarossa, is launched. At 1,600 kilometers, it is the longest front in history. More than three and a half million German and allied soldiers are in active combat, supported by artillery, air force, and tanks. The German propaganda declares the offensive as a pre-emptive strike, for which the Soviets are unprepared.
GERHARD GOERTZ: "They even came out in their night shirts and started shooting. They were taken by complete surprise."
NARRATOR: A Non-aggression Pact between the two dictatorships is officially in force. Only one year earlier, the Soviet Foreign Minister paid a goodwill visit to Berlin.
WEEKLY NEWSREEL: "In the new Reich Chancellery, Molotov was welcomed by the Führer for a long discussion."
NARRATOR: At the same time, secret preparations for Operation Barbarossa are in full swing. Soviet Russia is to be crushed in a swift campaign, according to the German plan of attack. In May 1941, Moscow displays its strength at a Military Parade. Stalin has long been warned of the planned German offensive. But he does not believe Hitler will dare to attack. Only a few weeks later, German fighter planes dominate Soviet air space. Despite clear warnings, the Red Army is not ready for action. The invaders are confident of victory. Along a broad front, the Wehrmacht occupies the Ukraine, White Russia, and the Baltic States. During the battles of those first months, the defenders suffer enormous losses. In 1941 alone, over three million Russian soldiers are captured by the Germans. The majority of them die in the POW camps as intended.
HERBERT BAIER: "Our superiors told us time and time again that the Russians were subhuman, uneducated, so the Russians were given short shrift. And we were also told that we'd be home by the end of December, in time for Christmas."
NARRATOR: Hitler and his generals conduct a war of destruction, in violation of international law. General Field Marshal Keitel prepares a batch of criminal directives. One of them, the so-called Commissar Order,directed Communist Party officials to be shot immediately upon capture for all the world to see.
WILLI HANISCH: "I was there and saw with my own eyes how the commissars were picked out and just shot right there on the street."
NARRATOR: The Wehrmacht also conducts man-hunting raids on the Jewish population.
WILLI HEIN: "They were dragged from their homes and led away and had to bring along their spades and dig their own graves. And then the military police just shot them."
Invasion of the Soviet Union, 1941
For the campaign against the Soviet Union, the Germans allotted almost 150 divisions containing a total of about 3,000,000 men. Among these were 19 panzer divisions, and in total the “Barbarossa” force had about 3,000 tanks, 7,000 artillery pieces, and 2,500 aircraft. It was in effect the largest and most powerful invasion force in human history. The Germans’ strength was further increased by more than 30 divisions of Finnish and Romanian troops.
The Soviet Union had twice or perhaps three times the number of both tanks and aircraft as the Germans had, but their aircraft were mostly obsolete. The Soviet tanks were about equal to those of the Germans, however. A greater hindrance to Hitler’s chances of victory was that the German intelligence service underestimated the troop reserves that Stalin could bring up from the depths of the U.S.S.R. The Germans correctly estimated that there were about 150 divisions in the western parts of the U.S.S.R. and reckoned that 50 more might be produced. But the Soviets actually brought up more than 200 fresh divisions by the middle of August, making a total of 360. The consequence was that, though the Germans succeeded in shattering the original Soviet armies by superior technique, they then found their path blocked by fresh ones. The effects of the miscalculations were increased because much of August was wasted while Hitler and his advisers were having long arguments as to what course they should follow after their initial victories. Another factor in the Germans’ calculations was purely political, though no less mistaken they believed that within three to six months of their invasion, the Soviet regime would collapse from lack of domestic support.
The German attack on the Soviet Union was to have an immediate and highly salutary effect on Great Britain’s situation. Until then Britain’s prospects had appeared hopeless in the eyes of most people except the British themselves and the government’s decision to continue the struggle after the fall of France and to reject Hitler’s peace offers could spell only slow suicide unless relief came from either the United States or the U.S.S.R. Hitler brought Great Britain relief by turning eastward and invading the Soviet Union just as the strain on Britain was becoming severe.
On June 22, 1941, the German offensive was launched by three army groups under the same commanders as in the invasion of France in 1940: on the left (north), an army group under Leeb struck from East Prussia into the Baltic states toward Leningrad on the right (south), another army group, under Rundstedt, with an armoured group under Kleist, advanced from southern Poland into the Ukraine against Kiev, whence it was to wheel southeastward to the coasts of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov and in the centre, north of the Pripet Marshes, the main blow was delivered by Bock’s army group, with one armoured group under Guderian and another under Hoth, thrusting northeastward at Smolensk and Moscow.
The invasion along a 1,800-mile front took the Soviet leadership completely by surprise and caught the Red Army in an unprepared and partially demobilized state. Piercing the northern border, Guderian’s tanks raced 50 miles beyond the frontier on the first day of the invasion and were at Minsk, 200 miles beyond it, on June 27. At Minsk they converged with Hoth’s tanks, which had pierced the opposite flank, but Bock’s infantry could not follow up quickly enough to complete the encirclement of the Soviet troops in the area though 300,000 prisoners were taken in the salient, a large part of the Soviet forces was able to escape to the east. The Soviet armies were clumsily handled and frittered their tank strength away in piecemeal action like that of the French in 1940. But the isolated Soviet troops fought with a stubbornness that the French had not shown, and their resistance imposed a brake by continuing to block road centres long after the German tide had swept past them. The result was similar when Guderian’s tanks, having crossed the Dnieper River on July 10, entered Smolensk six days later and converged with Hoth’s thrust through Vitebsk: 200,000 Soviet prisoners were taken but some Soviet forces were withdrawn from the trap to the line of the Desna, and a large pocket of resistance lay behind the German armour. By mid-July, moreover, a series of rainstorms were turning the sandy Russian roads into clogging mud, over which the wheeled vehicles of the German transport behind the tanks could make only very slow progress. The Germans also began to be hampered by the scorched earth policy adopted by the retreating Soviets. The Soviet troops burned crops, destroyed bridges, and evacuated factories in the face of the German advance. Entire steel and munitions plants in the westernmost portions of the U.S.S.R. were dismantled and shipped by rail to the east, where they were put back into production. The Soviets also destroyed or evacuated most of their rolling stock (railroad cars), thus depriving the Germans of the use of the Soviet rail system, since Soviet railroad track was of a different gauge than German track and German rolling stock was consequently useless on it.
Nevertheless, by mid-July the Germans had advanced more than 400 miles and were only 200 miles from Moscow. They still had ample time to make decisive gains before the onset of winter, but they lost the opportunity, primarily because of arguments throughout August between Hitler and the OKH about the destination of the next thrusts thence: whereas the OKH proposed Moscow as the main objective, Hitler wanted the major effort to be directed southeastward, through the Ukraine and the Donets Basin into the Caucasus, with a minor swing northwestward against Leningrad (to converge with Leeb’s army group).
In the Ukraine, meanwhile, Rundstedt and Kleist had made short work of the foremost Soviet defenses, stronger though the latter had been. A new Soviet front south of Kiev was broken by the end of July and in the next fortnight the Germans swept down to the Black Sea mouths of the Bug and Dnieper rivers—to converge with Romania’s simultaneous offensive. Kleist was then ordered to wheel northward from the Ukraine, Guderian southward from Smolensk, for a pincer movement around the Soviet forces behind Kiev and by the end of September the claws of the encircling movement had caught 520,000 men. These gigantic encirclements were partly the fault of inept Soviet high commanders and partly the fault of Stalin, who as commander in chief stubbornly overrode the advice of his generals and ordered his armies to stand and fight instead of allowing them to retreat eastward and regroup in preparation for a counteroffensive.
Winter was approaching, and Hitler stopped Leeb’s northward drive on the outskirts of Leningrad. He ordered Rundstedt and Kleist, however, to press on from the Dnieper toward the Don and the Caucasus and Bock was to resume the advance on Moscow.
Bock’s renewed advance on Moscow began on October 2, 1941. Its prospects looked bright when Bock’s armies brought off a great encirclement around Vyazma, where 600,000 more Soviet troops were captured. That left the Germans momentarily with an almost clear path to Moscow. But the Vyazma battle had not been completed until late October the German troops were tired, the country became a morass as the weather got worse, and fresh Soviet forces appeared in the path as they plodded slowly forward. Some of the German generals wanted to break off the offensive and to take up a suitable winter line. But Bock wanted to press on, believing that the Soviets were on the verge of collapse, while Brauchitsch and Halder tended to agree with his view. As that also accorded with Hitler’s desire, he made no objection. The temptation of Moscow, now so close in front of their eyes, was too great for any of the topmost leaders to resist. On December 2 a further effort was launched, and some German detachments penetrated into the suburbs of Moscow but the advance as a whole was held up in the forests covering the capital. The stemming of this last phase of the great German offensive was partly due to the effects of the Russian winter, whose subzero temperatures were the most severe in several decades. In October and November a wave of frostbite cases had decimated the ill-clad German troops, for whom provisions of winter clothing had not been made, while the icy cold paralyzed the Germans’ mechanized transport, tanks, artillery, and aircraft. The Soviets, by contrast, were well clad and tended to fight more effectively in winter than did the Germans. By this time German casualties had mounted to levels that were unheard of in the campaigns against France and the Balkans by November the Germans had suffered about 730,000 casualties.
In the south, Kleist had already reached Rostov-on-Don, gateway to the Caucasus, on November 22, but had exhausted his tanks’ fuel in doing so. Rundstedt, seeing the place to be untenable, wanted to evacuate it but was overruled by Hitler. A Soviet counteroffensive recaptured Rostov on November 28, and Rundstedt was relieved of his command four days later. The Germans, however, managed to establish a front on the Mius River—as Rundstedt had recommended.
As the German drive against Moscow slackened, the Soviet commander on the Moscow front, General Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov, on December 6 inaugurated the first great counteroffensive with strokes against Bock’s right in the Elets (Yelets) and Tula sectors south of Moscow and against his centre in the Klin and Kalinin sectors to the northwest. Levies of Siberian troops, who were extremely effective fighters in cold weather, were used for these offensives. There followed a blow at the German left, in the Velikie Luki sector and the counteroffensive, which was sustained throughout the winter of 1941–42, soon took the form of a triple convergence toward Smolensk.
These Soviet counteroffensives tumbled back the exhausted Germans, lapped around their flanks, and produced a critical situation. From generals downward, the invaders were filled with ghastly thoughts of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. In that emergency Hitler forbade any retreat beyond the shortest possible local withdrawals. His decision exposed his troops to awful sufferings in their advanced positions facing Moscow, for they had neither the clothing nor the equipment for a Russian winter campaign but if they had once started a general retreat it might easily have degenerated into a panic-stricken rout.
The Red Army’s winter counteroffensive continued for more than three months after its December launching, though with diminishing progress. By March 1942 it had advanced more than 150 miles in some sectors. But the Germans maintained their hold on the main bastions of their winter front—such towns as Schlüsselburg, Novgorod, Rzhev, Vyazma, Bryansk, Orël (Oryol), Kursk, Kharkov, and Taganrog—despite the fact that the Soviets had often advanced many miles beyond these bastions, which were in effect cut off. In retrospect, it became clear that Hitler’s veto on any extensive withdrawal worked out in such a way as to restore the confidence of the German troops and probably saved them from a widespread collapse. Nevertheless, they paid a heavy price indirectly for that rigid defense. One immediate handicap was that the strength of the Luftwaffe was drained in the prolonged effort to maintain supplies by air, under winter conditions, to the garrisons of these more or less isolated bastion towns. The tremendous strain of that winter campaign, on armies which had not been prepared for it, had other serious effects. Before the winter ended, many German divisions were reduced to barely a third of their original strength, and they were never fully built up again.
The German plan of campaign had begun to miscarry in August 1941, and its failure was patent when the Soviet counteroffensive started. Nevertheless, having dismissed Brauchitsch and appointed himself army commander in chief in December, Hitler persisted in overruling the tentative opposition of the general staff to his strategy.
Designed by Hitler, the plan for invading the Soviet Union called for the use of three large army groups. Army Group North was to march through the Baltic Republics and capture Leningrad. In Poland, Army Group Center was to drive east to Smolensk, then on to Moscow. Army Group South was ordered to attack into the Ukraine, capture Kiev, and then turn towards the oil fields of the Caucasus. All told, the plan called for the use of 3.3 million German soldiers, as well as an additional 1 million from Axis nations such as Italy, Romania, and Hungary. While the German High Command (OKW) advocated for a direct strike on Moscow with the bulk of their forces, Hitler insisted on capturing the Baltics and Ukraine as well.
Barbarossa – the biggest invasion in history
Eighty years ago this year, the German Nazis mounted the greatest invasion in history. Napoleon had invaded Russia in 1812 with an army of 685,000 men. Hitler did so in 1941 with more than five times that number.
The Russians, taken by surprise, were outnumbered, outclassed, and outgeneralled. They almost lost Moscow. They almost certainly would have lost it but for vast distance, poor roads, and Hitler’s prioritisation of the conquest of the Ukraine.
In the event, the Germans came within 30 miles of the Russian capital before winter shut down the offensive. Russian losses had been astronomical: five million by December 1941.
Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia, evolved from General Marcks’ plan of August 1940, which prioritised the destruction of the bulk of the Red Army in Belorussia (modern Belarus) and the capture of Moscow. This plan was heavily amended in successive studies, with Hitler downgrading the importance of taking Moscow in favour of capturing Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and the Ukraine. As finalised, the objectives of the three army groups were:
• Army Group North was to advance from East Prussia through the Baltic States and join with the Finns to take Leningrad.
• Army Group Centre’s initial operations from its concentration areas around Warsaw were intended to clear the traditional invasion route to Moscow as far as Smolensk, before swinging north to support the attack on Leningrad. After the city was taken, the advance on Moscow was to be resumed.
• Army Group South, including Romanian and Hungarian divisions, was tasked with taking the rich agricultural lands of the Ukraine and clearing the Black Sea coast.
The overall aim was to trap and destroy the bulk of the Red Army in a series of encirclements in western Russia, before finally securing a line from Archangel to Astrakhan.
The invasion’s chances of success depended on the 19 Panzer divisions concentrated in four Panzergruppen, which also incorporated the 14 motorised divisions. These were to form the cutting edge of the German offensive and had the daunting task of cutting through the massive forces that the Red Army could deploy in European Russia, which totalled perhaps 170 divisions, including up to 60 tank divisions and at least 13 motorised divisions.
Most of these units were deployed close to the frontier. The accepted explanation for this has been Stalin’s obsession with securing his newly conquered territories. German wartime claims that they invaded to pre-empt a Russian attack have almost always been dismissed as crude propaganda, but this view has been challenged as new material has emerged from Soviet archives.
Despite ultimate failure, the German military achievement was extraordinary, especially when set against the Soviet Union’s massive military lead as late as 1936. But whereas the Nazis had remilitarised with ruthless determination in the years following, Stalin had turned on and devastated his own army.
The great purges of the late 1930s – a counter-revolutionary terror by a paranoid bureaucratic dictator – destroyed the bulk of the Red Army officer corps, including its most brilliant leaders, notably Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who had been in the vanguard of new interwar theories of armoured warfare.
Power passed to ageing reactionaries and lickspittles like Marshal Budenny, who prioritised cavalry over tanks. The terror paralysed initiative and independence at every level of command. The Red Army was wholly incapable of responding effectively to the demands of the kind of modern, mobile, fast-changing ‘deep’ battle that the Wehrmacht imposed on it.
The Nazi dictatorship embraced a military culture in which senior officers set general objectives and allocated forces but left combat commanders to make the tactical decisions. The Stalinist dictatorship, by contrast, was medieval in its crudity and this brought it perilously close to disaster in the context of modern industrialised warfare.
The implications of the Soviet collapse in 1941 were huge. It meant the Nazi empire extended from the Atlantic to the gates of Moscow, with control over continental resources of manpower, food supplies, raw materials, and industrial capacity. It meant that four years of gruelling attritional warfare would be necessary to destroy it. It meant that tens of millions would die in the process.
Our guide to this most momentous of military campaigns is David Porter. He first explores the shifting balance of political and military power in the interwar years. Then, he analyses the key factors that determined the outcome of Operation Barbarossa between June and December 1941.
This is an extract from a special feature on Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia, in the latest issue of Military History Matters. Read the full article in the magazine, which you can subscribe to here, or here via an online subscription at The Past website.
The Invasion of the Soviet Union
During the winter, German commanders negotiated the deployment of special troops behind the frontlines to annihilate the communists, the Jews, and others they believed would oppose German rule. On June 22, 1941, Germany attacked the Soviets with 134 divisions in the front line and 73 more as backup. Three million German soldiers and a further 650,000 soldiers from the Axis powers including Finland, Romania, Slovakia, Italy, and Hungary made one of the most massive invasions in history. The front line stretched from the Black Sea in the south to the Baltic Sea in the north.
For months the Soviets had ignored the warnings from fellow Allied powers concerning the buildup of troops along its borders. The Soviet forces were caught unaware, and most of the Soviet fighting planes were destroyed on the ground. The Germans quickly overwhelmed the Soviets, surrounding their units and cutting off supply lines. The special police service Einsatzgruppen followed close by, identifying and eliminating those who might resist German occupation. The Einsatzgruppen was involved in mass murder against male Jews and Soviet officials. They established concentration camps and quickly filled them with Soviet Jews. In late July, Germany had begun killing the Jews in the concentration camps. As the camps had proved to be effective in suppressing resistance, Hitler began moving Jews from Germany to Russia. The Soviets suffered massive casualties but failed to collapse as anticipated by the German leadership. By late September 1941, Germany had reached Leningrad in the north, by December they were nearing Moscow.
‘Operation Barbarossa’: the Invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany – 22 June 1941
On 22 June 1941, Hitler ordered the start of ‘Operation Barbarossa’ – the campaign to conquer the Soviet Union.
To mark the day, here are some contemporary newspaper stories (published the day after the invasion started) that report on the start of the war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
Image © Northcliffe Media Limited. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.
© 2021 Findmypast Newspaper Archive Limited - Proudly presented by Findmypast in partnership with the British Library
Motivations for Invading USSR
As early as 1925, Adolf Hitler vaguely declared in his political manifesto and autobiography Mein Kampf that he would invade the Soviet Union, asserting that the German people needed to secure Lebensraum (“living space”) to ensure the survival of Germany for generations to come. On February 10, 1939, Hitler told his army commanders that the next war would be “purely a war of Weltanschauungen…totally a people’s war, a racial war.” On November 23, once World War II already started, Hitler declared that “racial war has broken out and this war shall determine who shall govern Europe, and with it, the world.” The racial policy of Nazi Germany viewed the Soviet Union (and all of Eastern Europe) as populated by non-Aryan Untermenschen (“sub-humans”), ruled by “Jewish Bolshevik conspirators.” Hitler claimed in Mein Kampf that Germany’s destiny was to “turn to the East” as it did “six hundred years ago.” Accordingly, it was stated Nazi policy to kill, deport, or enslave the majority of Russian and other Slavic populations and repopulate the land with Germanic peoples, under the Generalplan Ost (“General Plan for the East”). The Germans’ belief in their ethnic superiority is discernible in official German records and by pseudoscientific articles in German periodicals at the time, which covered topics such as “how to deal with alien populations.”
Do you think that we deserved this?
Soviet foreign minister Molotov to the German ambassador in Moscow, on hearing news of the invasion.
On 22 June 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Codenamed Operation Barbarossa, it was the largest military operation in history, involving more than 3 million Axis troops and 3,500 tanks. It was the logical culmination of Hitler's belief that the German 'master race' should seek 'lebensraum' (living space) in the east, at the expense of the 'subhuman' native Slav people, who were to be exterminated or reduced to serf status.
Planning for Barbarossa had begun over a year previously, in the wake of Germany's stunning success against the western allies in France. The triumphalism that followed this victory, combined with widely believed reports that the Soviet armed forces were weak and deficient (evidence came from defeats by Finland in 1939) led to great optimism in the German high command, with Hitler declaring, 'we have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.'
Caught by Surprise
The Soviet Union was unprepared for the onslaught that came in June. Stalin refused to believe mounting evidence that an invasion was being prepared, and so his armies and air force on the frontier were caught by surprise. As in their earlier victories, the Luftwaffe quickly gained air superiority and helped armoured columns and motorised infantry punch holes through the Soviet front line. Barbarossa had three primary objectives – the Baltic States and Leningrad in the north, Moscow in the centre, and the economic resources of the Ukraine and southern Russia in the south. This led to a division of focus for which Hitler and his generals were later to be widely criticised.
Initially, all went well for the Germans, some units advancing 50 miles on the first day, although resistance was fiercer than expected in the south. With Stalin personally intervening to forbid generals to retreat, large Soviet forces were encircled and destroyed or taken prisoner. 250,000 were lost in a massive encirclement around Minsk at the end of June, 180,000 were taken prisoner at Smolensk, while the Red Army suffered 500,000 casualties at the Battle of Kiev in September.
Underestimating the challenge of Russia
But despite the enormous casualties they had inflicted, the Germans had failed to land a decisive blow. They had underestimated both the resources of the Soviet Union and its willingness to accept massive losses. Now the German offensives were running out of steam, as front-line units halted for resupply and replacements. At a crucial phase of the operation, Hitler insisted that the panzer divisions of Army Group Centre, which were advancing on Moscow, were diverted to overcome resistance in the north and south. With this achieved, the drive on Moscow resumed on 2 October, codenamed Operation Typhoon. Ten days later German units were within 90 miles of the Russian capital, but stubborn Soviet resistance and heavy German casualties, combined with heavy rain which turned bad roads into rivers of mud, slowed the advance to a crawl. By the beginning of December, German troops were within sight of the spires of Moscow. However, a massive Soviet counterattack, using fresh units brought in from the East, supported by T-34 tanks, drove the Germans back. As the Russian winter set in, German offensive operations were abandoned.
Operation Barbarossa was one of the decisive moments of the war in Europe. Despite enormous losses in territory, men and weaponry, the Soviets had fought on, and survived. They would face fresh German offensives in 1942, but as the immense manpower and resources of the Soviet Union were brought into play, time was on their side. The Eastern Front would become a graveyard of the German armed forces, as men, tanks and aircraft were thrown into an increasingly unwinnable conflict.
Did you know?
When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, they faced a Red Army which had been decimated by the Anti-Trotskyite Stalinist purges of the 1930s, losing 400 of its generals. This severely undermined its effectiveness on the battlefield.
Hitler’s Insane Invasion of Russia Forever Changed World History
What would have happened if Hitler had not invaded Russia? The dynamics of the Third Reich and Hitler meant that Germany would not remain passive.
Here's What You Need to Remember: Smashing Russia would also be the apocalyptic climax for what Hitler saw as an inevitable showdown with the cradle of communism. Or, he could have turned towards the Mediterranean and the Middle East
One of the most momentous decisions in history was Adolf Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.
Operation Barbarossa transformed Nazi Germany's war from a one-front struggle, against a weakened Britain and a still-neutral United States, into a two-front conflict. The Eastern Front absorbed as much as three-quarters of the German army and inflicted two-thirds of German casualties.
So what would have happened if Hitler had not invaded Russia? The dynamics of the Third Reich and Hitler meant that Germany would not remain passive. In fact, it is hard to imagine Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union not at war, though the question is when this would have happened.
One possibility was invading Britain in 1941, and thus either ending the European war or freeing up the Third Reich to fight a later one-front war in the East. Thus Operation Sealion, the proposed 1940 amphibious assault on southern England, would merely have been postponed a year. The problem is that the Kreigsmarine—the German navy—would still have been badly outnumbered by the Royal Navy, even with the addition of the new battleship Bismarck. The British would have enjoyed an additional year to reinforce the Royal Air Force and to rebuild the divisions battered during the Fall of France. Britain would also have been receiving Lend-Lease from the United States, which by September 1941 was almost a belligerent power that escorted convoys in the North Atlantic. A few months later, America did formally enter the conflict despite the Japanese advance in the Pacific, the United States would certainly have concentrated its growing strength on keeping Britain unconquered and in the war.
A more likely possibility is that Hitler could have chosen to move south instead of east. With most of Western Europe under his control after the summer of 1940, and Eastern Europe either subdued or allied with Germany, Hitler had a choice by mid-1941. He could either follow his instincts and ideology and move against the Soviet Union, with its rich resources and open spaces for Nazi colonists. Smashing Russia would also be the apocalyptic climax for what Hitler saw as an inevitable showdown with the cradle of communism.
Or, he could have turned towards the Mediterranean and the Middle East, as his naval chief Admiral Erich Raeder preferred. In the real World War Two, Rommel's North African campaign was a sideshow to the main event in Russia. In the alternate scenario, North Africa becomes the main event.
One possibility would be to pressure Franco to drop Spanish neutrality and allow German troops to enter Spain and capture Gibraltar, thus sealing off the direct route from Britain to the Mediterranean (if Franco was stubborn, another possibility would be to invade Spain and then take Gibraltar anyway.) Another option would be to reinforce Rommel's Afrika Korps, drive across Libya and Egypt to capture the Suez Canal (which Rommel almost did in July 1942.) From there the Germans could advance on Middle Eastern oil fields, or should Germany attack Russia in 1942, move through the Caucuses in a pincer operation that would squeeze Russia from the west and south. Meanwhile, steel and other resources would have been switched from building tanks and other land armaments to building massive numbers of U-boats that would have strangled Britain's maritime lifeline.
Would this alternative German strategy have worked? A German Mediterranean option would have been very different than invading the Soviet Union. Instead of a huge Axis land army of 3 million men, the Mediterranean would have been a contest of ships and aircraft, supporting relatively small numbers of ground troops through the vast distances of the Middle East. With the Soviet Union remaining neutral (and continuing to ship resources to Germany under the Nazi-Soviet Pact,) Germany would have been able to concentrate the Luftwaffe in the Mediterranean. German aircraft mauled the Royal Navy in 1941–42, even while supporting the campaign in Russia. The full weight of the Luftwaffe would have been devastating.
On the other hand, the logistics of a Middle Eastern offensive would have been daunting, due to the great distances and lack of Italian shipping capacity to transport fuel. Germany had an efficient air force and navy, but it was primarily a continental power whose strength rested on its army. Assuming that America entered the war in December 1941, then it is possible that the focal point of the European theater in 1942 would have been German–Italian air and naval forces supporting a reinforced Afrika Korps, versus British and American land, air, and naval forces defending or counterattacking in the Near East.
Which in turn raises another question: what if Hitler didn't cancel Operation Barbarossa, but rather postponed it until the summer of 1942? Assuming the Axis were successful in the Middle East, the Soviets would have faced a German–Italian expeditionary force advancing north through the Caucasus (perhaps Turkey would have joined the rising Axis tide.) Another year would also have given Germany more time to loot and exploit the resources of conquered Western Europe.
On the other hand, the Red Army in June of 1941 was caught terribly off-balance, still reeling and reorganizing from Stalin's purges. The extra year would have given the Soviets time to finish regrouping the Red Army as well as absorbing formidable new equipment such as the T-34 tank and Katyusha rocket launcher. Delaying Barbarossa until 1942, assuming Britain hadn't surrendered, would have meant that Germany would begin its attack on Russia while still needing to bolster its western defenses against the inevitable Anglo-American counterattack.
Superior German tactical and operational skills, as well as greater combat experience, would have given the Wehrmacht the edge in the opening days of Barbarossa 1942. Yet the catastrophic losses the Red Army suffered in 1941 would probably have been lower, leading to the possibility that Barbarossa delayed would have been a gift to the Soviets.
Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.
This article first appeared in 2016 and is reprinted due to reader interest.