Operation Barbarossa

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A strategic surprise to Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa was the German code name for its invasion of Russia on 22 June 1941, at 04:15 local time. Stalin had believed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact promising nonaggression from the Germans. The area of operations is called the Russian Front, or, from a German standpoint, the Eastern Front. Russians also call it the Great Patriotic War or the Motherland War

Adolf Hitler had generally described action in the "East" in Mein Kampf. It appears to always have been in his mind, but Germany was in no position to attack for many years. Indeed, there was considerable cooperation between Germany and the Soviet Union, the latter providing training for the Black Reichswehr while Germany was limited in military forces. Detailed German planning began in 1940.

Newly released documents lead recent historians to believe, however, that Stalin was planning a preemptive strike. "Though no smoking gun has been found in the archives yet — no document signed by Stalin naming the date of the attack — the new evidence demonstrates that the leader of the Soviet people started planning as early as the summer of 1940 and hoped to launch the invasion. "[1]

German intentions

Detailed planning was done by the Army Staff, OKH. One of the earliest notes during the planning process is an entry in the diary of Army Chief of Staff Franz Halder, for 31 July 1940. It described a first phase of a combined thrust toward Kiev, and a thrust through the Baltic States to Moscow. This would be followed by pincers from north and south, then an operation against the Baku oil fields in the Caucasus (now Azerbaijan).

Hitler issued OKW Directive 18 on 12 November 1940, confirming the Army staff was developing the plan and OKW was minimally involved. OKH presented their plans to him on 5 December, which he approved in principle. At that point, OKW became involved, and Warlimont provided a draft directive on 16 December. [2]

The formal decision came on 18 November 1940, with OKW Directive 21. A plan previously code-named "Otto" and "Fritz" was renamed "Barbarossa", with the order beginning

The German Wehrmacht must be prepared, also before the ending of the war against England, to crush Soviet Russia in a rapid campaign.[3]

Plans would change during the operation.


Hitler and Mussolini met on 2 June. The two talked for two hours before being joined by their Foreign Ministers, Ribbentrop and Ciano. Mussolini noted that Hitler had wept over Hess' actions. After the ministers joined them, Hitler reviewed international issues, describing Britain as closer to political collapse, ruling out the invasion of Cyprus that Mussolini wanted, and again mentioned the Madagascar Plan with respect to ridding Europe of Jews. He did not, however, give any indication he was planning action, in the near term, against Russia.

He issued the Commissar Order on 6 June, protested by Walther von Brauchitsch, until Hitler said, "I cannot demand that my general should understand my order, but I do demand they follow them."[4]

More specific information was given to the Japanese Ambassador, a hint that Germany would act soon against the Soviets. On 12 June, however, he gave the broad plan to Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu, from whom he needed troops for the Russian front. Ionescu gave full support, and would call it a "Holy War" on the 22nd. [5]

Failure to prepare

Both Stalin and Adolf Hitler, in various ways, were unprepared for the reality of the conflict. Stalin was surprised, tactically and strategically, by the invasion. Hitler was overconfident in a quick victory.


Strategic warning

Stalin received a warning document, in May 1939, about The Future Plans of Aggression by Fascist Germany, based on a German briefing obtained by Soviet spies in Warsaw. A Soviet agent first reported that Hitler planned to declare war on the Soviet Union in March 1941, and refined the estimate, by February 28, to May 20.

This intelligence was corroborated by sources in Bucharest, Budapest, Sofia and Rome, to say nothing of the information provided by the spy Richard Sorge (code-named Ramsay) in Tokyo [6] in which the authors detail the undercover operations of the spy ring headed by Richard Sorge and Hotsumi Ozaki which transmitted highly secret information from Tokyo to the Soviet Union between 1933 and 1941. On April 17 a Prague informant predicted a German invasion in the second half of June. The precise date and time of the invasion were revealed by a reliable source in Berlin fully three days before the Germans attacked.

All of this Stalin ignored. Typically, he scrawled on the bottom of the Prague report: English provocation! Investigate! On May 19, Sorge predicted that 150 divisions were being readied by the Germans for an invasion of the Soviet Union. Stalin retorted with an expletive.


The result was that literally nothing was done to prepare for the German assault. Soviet planes were not camouflaged. Troops were not in defensive positions; indeed they were ordered not to occupy such positions, for fear of provoking the Germans.

Worse, Stalin had to the gathering storm with yet another purge of suspected threats to his own authority, having had shot Mikhail Tukhachevsky and:

  • 2 of the other 5 Marshals
  • 13 of the 15 army commanders (full generals) and 8 of the 9 equivalent admirals
  • 50 of the 57 corps commanders
  • 154 of the 186 division commanders

Soviet public position

On 13 June 1941, Moscow Radio broadcast a TASS report that appeared to be in Stalin's personal style. "to tear up the Pact and to undertake an attack on the USSR are without any foundation," and that such rumours were "clumsy propaganda by forces hostile to the USSR and Germany and interested in an extension of the war." [7]

Was Stalin planning an attack?


Initial order of battle

Both countries used a system that separated military districts from major operational commands. A military district was responsible for the support of military facilities located within it, and of troops permanently assigned to them. Since the Soviet Union had not mobilized operational commands at the time of the invasion, the border districts thus controlled the immediate response, until the Fronts, the Soviet equivalent of an army group, were activated. Military districts did not play a major role on the German side.


Soviet Union


  • Odessa Special Military District (Tyulenev) 14 divisions


The frontal organizations shown is drawn from the preemptive attack plan described by Pleshakov. It also called for a strategic reserve of five armies. No armies were actually in the strategic reserve, and many Fronts were understrength.[8]

  • Northwestern Front

  • Northwestern Front

  • Western Front

  • Southwestern Front

  • Southern Front

Initial actions


Tactical surprise was almost complete; while General Headquarters sent some warnings just after the Germans started moving, very few were received through a primitive communications system. [9]

German intelligence, however, was also quite lacking. By 4 July, he told his entourage, "...to all intents and purposes the Russians have lost the war." Further, he said that Germany had smashed Soviet armor and aviation, and they could never replace them. [10] In reality, Russian was starting strategic responses in July.


On the first day, Italy and Romania declared war on the Soviet Union.[11] Hitler's letter to Benito Mussolini was given to the Italian foreign minister at 3 AM that morning; [12] Romania had been informed earlier because it was providing troops.


Joseph Goebbels broadcast the justification for the action at 05:30 on the first day. It justified the attack as defending not just Germany, but Europe, from the "Jewish-Bolshevik leaders". [12]

Wilfried Strik-Strikfeldt joined Army Group Center in 1941, serving on Russian affairs as special advisor to Field Marshal Fedor von Bock. His official role was to train Russian propagandists for the German military. [13] His efforts eventually led to the formation of the Russian Liberation Army under Andrei Vlasov,


German air strikes hit 66 air bases, the naval facilities at Libava in the Baltic, and five cities: Kovno, Minsk, Odessa, Rovno and Sebastopol. With 1280 combat aircraft the German Luftwaffe destroyed over than 2000 Soviet aircraft within 18 hours. The Germans lost 35 aircraft, 15 of which from premature explosions of own bombs. The Soviet air defense, therefore, was only able to inflict a loss of one German aircraft to each 100 of theirs. [14]

The Luftwaffe changed its targeting priorities from close air support being the main air task in the 1939 and 1940 blitzkriegs. Instead, the first mission was offensive counter-air: destruction of the Red Air Force and its ground organization, after which close air support would follow. These priorities indicate the Luftwaffe regarded aircraft engines as a center of gravity. They were:[14]

  1. "Destruction of modern aircraft and the Red Air Force ground organization.
  2. Destruction of production facilities for aircraft and aircraft engines.
  3. Destruction of aircraft with "M" (modern) engines.
  4. Destruction of other aircraft.
  5. Red Air Force ground organization.
  6. Support of the Army

Priority #2 could not be met because the Luftwaffe was a tactical air force, and did not have long-range bombers capable of reaching the aircraft factories. They did not target C3I.


Land forces, by nightfall, had taken the fortress towns of Kobryn and Pruzahany. [11]

Within 3 weeks, Army Group Center had reached Smolensk, 200 miles from Moscow. In the north, Leeb's Army Group North was approaching Leningrad, and the southern group was nearing Kiev.


On 23 June, the Soviets formed an Evacuation Council, which immediately began to prepare to move approximately 1500 industrial facilities to safety in eastern Russia, preferably beyond the Ural Mountains. [15]

Issues in fall 1941

Probably the most important strategic argument came in mid-July, when Hitler decided not to follow the plan and take Moscow as quickly as possibly, but to shift the priority to the food, oil and industrial areas of the South. OKH argued that taking Moscow first was not merely psychological, but the heart of the Soviet centralized communications and transportation systems. Their intelligence indicated that Russian forces were concentrating for the defense of Moscow, and rapid action was needed to avoid striking into a prepared defense.

Strategic planning continued after the invasion started. Hitler and Jodl continued the next phase of discussion with the Army staff. While OKH wanted to concentrate on Moscow above all, Hitler wanted to capture Leningrad and Kronstadt as well. The Army draft had referred the "simultaneous pursuit of both objectives," if and only if Russian resistance collapsed rapidly. [16]

Within two weeks of the invasion, Hitler had called Halder to ask if armored formations could be shifted from Army Group Center before the foot-mobile infantry divisions.

OKW issued its first directive on 19 July, which at first seemed to be compatible with OKH and OKW views. On 23 July, however, Hitler directly issued a supplement to Directive 33, expanding the objectives in the south from Kiev alone, but to Kharkov and the lower Don, the Caucasus, and the Crimean peninsula. Army Group North was expected to meet its objective soon, and then send forces, including Panzergruppe III, back to reserve in Germany. Army Group Center, after expected success in Smolensk, was to send a number of dive bomber groups to Finland, as a deterrent to "reduce the temptation for England to intervene in the fighting along the Arctic coast." [17]

They submitted a formal protest on 18 August, which Hitler rejected on the 21st.[18]


Stalin, on 3 July, made his first broadcast to the Russian people, asking for total resistance, to which the populace would respond positively as Russians, not Communists. Einsatzgruppe killing had already begun behind the German lines, which would enrage Russians.</ref>


British communications intelligence personnel discovered that the Germans had penetrated some Russian air force and navy communications, sending a warning through the British Military Mission in Moscow on 7 July. On 9 July, they also broke the Enigma machine key used for ground-air communications. The Soviets were never informed of the details of the communications intelligence against the Germans, but the information was usually passed on, attributed to other sources.[19]


Keil und Kesel flow

In blitzkrieg doctrine, the Germans planned to use Keil und Kessel (wedge and cauldron) tactics to encircle and destroy the Russian. The Panzergruppen would act as the wedge, forming an outer ring around the enemy. Foot-mobile or motorized infantry would then form an inner ring,of the cauldron, destroying the enemy while the outward-facing armored units would prevent the enemy from being relieved. This theory did not work as well in Russia as it had in Poland and France. On 10 July, the Eleventh German Army had part of its 198th Infantry Division had been caught without antitank support and mauled badly by a heavy tank attack.[20]

Describing his experience commanding a Panzergruppe, Erich von Manstein wrote "the security of a tank formation operating in the enemy's rear largely [depended] on its ability to keep moving. Once it [came] to a halt, it [would] be immediately assailed from all sides by the enemy's reserves." The position of such a stationary panzer unit, Manstein added, could best be described as "hazardous."[21]

For local defense, halted panzer units would go into a formation called a hedgehog. This was adequate to defend the tanks, but not to control large areas. Such area control was the job of the infantry. If there were enough motorized (i.e., truck-borne) infantry units, the two rings could be formed quickly. There were few such units, however, and the 7th Panzer Division, after encircling the Smolensk pocket, faced simultaneous attacks from the inside and outside 1 August 1941.

A difference from the West and Poland was that Soviet T-34 medium and KV heavy tanks were effectively immune to the main guns of German tanks. The Germans compensated by redeploying 88mm guns in the antitank role, but this was a challenge they had never faced.


  1. Constantin Pleshakov (2005), Stalin's Folly: the tragic first ten days of World War II on the Eastern front, Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-618-36701-2, p. 13
  2. Walter Warlimont (1992), Inside Hitler's Headquarters 1933-45, Presidio Press, pp. 135-139p
  3. Ian Kershaw (2000), Hitler 1936-45: Nemesis, W.W. Norton, ISBN 0393049949, p. 335
  4. John Toland (1976), Adolf Hitler, Doubleday, p. 668
  5. Ian Kershaw (1998), Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, W.W. Norton, ISBN 0-393-04671-0, pp. 383-384
  6. Gordon Prange (1984). Target Tokyo: The Story of the Sorge Spy Ring. McGraw-Hill. 
  7. "Viktor Suvorov" (pseud.) (June 1985), "Who was Planning to Attack Whom in June 1941, Hitler or Stalin?", The Journal of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies
  8. Pleshakov, pp. 78-79
  9. Kenneth Macksey (1987), Military Errors of World War Two, Arms and Armour Press, p. 47
  10. Warlimont, p. 180
  11. 11.0 11.1 Martin Gilbert (1989), The Second World War, Stoddart, p. 199
  12. 12.0 12.1 Kershaw, Nemesis, p. 387
  13. Bob E. Willis Jr. (Academic Year 2004-2005), After the Blitzkrieg: The German Army’s Transition to Defeat in the East, School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College, pp. 40-41
  14. 14.0 14.1 Lonnie O. Ratley III (March-April 1983), "A Lesson of History: The Luftwaffe and Barbarossa", Air University Review
  15. Gilbert, p. 199
  16. Warlimont, pp. 181-182
  17. Warlimont, pp. 183-184
  18. William Shirer (1960), The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Simon & Schuster, pp. 456-457
  19. Gilbert, pp. 208-209
  20. Timothy Wray (September 1986), Standing Fast: German Defensive Doctrine on the Russian Front During World War II: Prewar to March 1943, U.S. Command and General Staff College
  21. Erich von Manstein, Lost Victories. Edited and translated by Anthony G. Powell. Henry Regnery Co., 1958, quoted by Wray