22 June - 5 December 1941

Operation Barbarossa was the code name of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in World War 2.

Strengths and Weaknesses Before the Big Clash

Hitler had seen the successful implementation of blitzkrieg in the Battle of France and wished to obtain a quick victory in the East. The conquest of the Soviet Union would have ensured not only liquidation of an ideological and racial enemy of Nazism but also the capture of vast natural resources. Although experienced, the Wehrmacht proceeded with some weaknesses. The Germans had no counterparts yet to the Soviet T-34 and KV-1 tanks, and most anti-tank guns of the infantry divisions had 37mm caliber, totally unsuited to cope with the new medium and heavy Soviet tanks.

The Soviets had their flaws that even surpassed those of the Germans. Stalin had executed a few years before much of the Red Army's officers, which led to the appointment in command of people unprepared for the positions they occupied. While the Soviets possessed an overwhelming numerical superiority in tanks and aircraft, most were obsolete models with a low level of readiness due to poor logistics.

Promising Beginnings for Operation Barbarossa

Operation Barbarossa commenced on June 22, 1941, involving millions of soldiers on each side, with Axis armies from Germany, Romania, Italy, Hungary and Slovakia. Finland fought alongside Germany but was not formally a member of the Axis. The Germans had organized their forces into three army groups: Army Group North, aiming Leningrad, Army Group Center, with Moscow as objective, and Army Group South, having as target Kiev.

At first, blitzkrieg went almost perfectly for the Germans. The two panzer groups of Army Group Center penetrated deep into the Soviet territory, encircling in the first week hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers in Bialystok and Minsk pockets.

Several hundred of Soviet tanks counter-attacked the panzers of Army Group North at Raseiniai, Lithuania, but after four days the Germans prevailed. The strongest resistance was encountered by Army Group South when several Soviet Mechanized Corps attacked the flanks of the 1st Panzer Group at Brody, in Western Ukraine. With the help of the Luftwaffe and using superior tactics, the Germans came out victors again after a battle that lasted a week.

Struggle for Smolensk

Army Group Center resumed the offensive in early July, aiming to achieve at Smolensk a new pincer movement with its armored groups. However, the Soviet resistance was increasing, the victory at Smolensk being obtained only after two months, at the cost of heavy losses for the Germans. Again, several hundred thousand Soviets soldiers were taken prisoners but a significant number managed to avoid encirclement.

Only Moscow was standing in front of the panzers of Army Group Center. However, according to Hitler's strategy that the attack on Moscow was not the most important then, the two armored groups of Army Group Center were sent several hundred miles away, one in the north and another in the south, to support the attacks against Leningrad and Kiev. Leningrad was isolated and besieged, without being conquered. Instead, the Wehrmacht obtained a great victory around Kiev, encircling even more Soviet divisions than in Bialystok-Minsk pockets.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-020-1268-36 / Hähle, Johannes / [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

The panzers returned to Army Group Center only in early October to begin the offensive against Moscow, but the weather would turn unfavorable to the Germans. The Battle of Moscow - a key episode in what would eventually be the failure of Operation Barbarossa - was to come.

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