Forgotten Operation Barbarossa – June 22, 1941

Almost unnoticed, the anniversary of the beginning of Operation Barbarossa (Unternehmung Barbarossa) has passed. In the Israeli and European press, little mention was made about it, and yet on June 22 it was the 77th anniversary of the beginning of this terrible war. It was one of the most important and certainly the most tragic military operations in the history of mankind. It was a clash of the powerful ideologies at that time – Nazism and communism, as well as the powerful force of nationalism that co-existed with Nazism. Even some Allies, fearing Bolshevism, supported fascism and Nazism.

After 77 years, is it time to forget? Is this intentional European and perhaps world-wide ‘amnesia’, caused by political correctness and the participating nations not wanting to remember the destruction caused and the reasons why? Perhaps those who fell victim to the attack – the countries of the former Soviet Union – also do not want to remember – not only the conflict, but the fact that together with Hitler they participated in the division of Europe for almost two years.

The Superpowers of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded neighboring countries without any provocation, whose only fault was existing between those two giants who wanted to bring a new order to Europe. But within the invaded countries were those who used the clash of military powers to settle old scores, to take revenge, commit robbery or murder. And there were also millions of ordinary people who, in this war game for influence, paid the biggest price – the price of uncountable suffering, exploitation and death.

On June 22, 1941, the largest military operation in the history of the world – Operation Barbarossa – began. Never before had such a large amount of soldiers and equipment been launched on one man’s decision. This operation shook the world, throwing countries against each other to fight for the death and life of the giants, of whom only one could emerge victorious. The years of fighting that followed showed that victory was not easy, and both sides suffered heavy losses.

On June 22, 1941, the German Third Reich along with allied forces – Hungary, Romania and Slovakia – attacked the Soviet Union unexpectedly. At 3:15 am, an attack on the front, consisting of thousands of kilometers from the Baltic to the Black Sea, began. Finland, which had lost considerable territory to the USSR during the war of 1939-1940, also took part in the conflict. In the first days of the operation, more than 7 million soldiers on both sides found themselves involved in the battle, and after the mobilization of almost 10 million soldiers in the USSR, the numbers became unimaginable. The amount of equipment used on both sides is no less staggering. Nearly 27,000 tanks and over 20,000 aircraft were used in the conflict.

Fig. Soviet aircraft destroyed at the airport

Blitzkrieg

The unexpected attack gave the Germans and their allies an incredible advantage, and the losses in people and equipment on the Soviet side were enormous. This war is an example of a lightning war – Blitzkrieg. Hundreds of Soviet aircraft were destroyed at airports because they did not have time to take off or there was no time to evacuate them to airports located further away from the border. Likewise, many Soviet tanks were destroyed by German planes and tanks. Also working against the Soviets was their equipment, a lot of which turned out to be technically inefficient. Soldiers were also unprepared and inexperienced, and the Soviet officer corps after the 1938 purges were few and inexperienced. Additionally, although the Soviets had information about German preparations for aggression, this had not been translated into a concrete plan.

Germany started preparing for Operation Barbarossa from the summer of 1940, when they began building infrastructure in the General Government needed for military operations – railways, roads, airports. From the spring of 1941, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and equipment were transferred to this area because it was on the axis of the main attack on the USSR. The two most important directions of the attack, towards the north and east, started out in the areas of East Prussia and the General Government. German forces were also directed from the General Government to the south, towards Ukraine. The Romanian army supported by the German 11th army took part in the attack from Romanian territory, and Hungarian divisions attacked areas occupied by Hungary.

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Fig. Destroyed Soviet tank near Kaunas

With a huge tactical advantage, manifested above all in the interaction between aviation and land forces, perfect connectivity, and speed of action, German troops advanced several dozen kilometers a day. It is worth adding that at that time Soviet tanks did not have on-board radios, which made communication on the battlefield difficult. The first days and weeks of the struggle seemed to confirm the thesis of the Soviet Union being a “colossus with legs of clay”. Soviet troops were in retreat along almost the entire front line, divisions and armies were falling apart, thousands of Soviet soldiers were taken prisoner, and the entire administrative and political apparatus was evacuated to the east.

After a month of fighting, on July 31, 1941, the forces of Army Group North under the command of Field Marshal Wilhelm von Lee were 30 km from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Army Group Centre under the command of Field Marshal Fedor von Bock acted against the forces of the Soviet Western Front. The German armies within this army group included the Second Panzer Group under Colonel General Heinz Guderian, and the Third Panzer Group under Colonel General Hermann Hoth. They were to attack Brest, Grodno, then head towards Minsk, and then to Smolensk. The Brest fortress, which was surrounded on the first day of the war, fiercely defended itself until the end of June 1941. The last strongholds were liquidated on July 20, 1941. Minsk was occupied on July 20, 1941. On July 10, 1941, the battle for Smolensk began, which lasted until September 10, 1941. 300,000 Soviet soldiers were taken captive during this operation. On September 26, 1941, Kiev surrendered. In the encirclement of Kiev were many Soviet units, and in total, 665,000 Soviet soldiers were taken prisoner around the Kiev reservoir. Army Group South, under the command of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, was given the task of destroying Soviet units in Western Ukraine. After a week, German troops reached Lvov, and directed an attack towards Ternopil and Vinnytsia. From the south, they attacked the Romanian army towards Odessa, supported by the German 11th Army. As a result of great losses and the danger of complete disruption, the Soviet command decided to evacuate all remaining troops to the Dnieper, but by the end of August this was only partially achieved. An attack directed towards Crimea also proceeded without much resistance. Odessa, however, defended itself from August 5, 1941 until October 16, 1941, when the city collapsed. On September 9, 1941, German troops cut off the land connection to Crimea.

The beginning of mass crimes

During Operation Barbarossa, people were killed not only on the front, but above all at the back of the Eastern front. The Jewish war between Nazi Germany and the USSR began a period of mass crimes against tens of millions of people. Prisoners in Soviet prisons became the first victims. Stalinist totalitarianism did not allow the opponents of Soviet power to be freed at large, which is why Lavrentiy Beria, People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, decided that prisoners who could not be evacuated had to be shot. While in some cities such as Grodno or Kaunas, NKVD officers failed to carry out the order, and others, like Minsk, managed to evacuate prisoners, in Western Ukraine, in the face of rapid advances from German forces, NKVD officers committed mass murders in prisons. In Lvov, Ternopil and many other towns in Galicia, about 17,000 prisoners, mainly Ukrainians, but also Poles and Jews, were murdered. To this day, no NKVD criminals have been punished.

The discovery of thousands of unburied corpses, decaying quickly in the June and July sun, caused an outburst of hatred towards the Soviet authorities. Because the Soviet civil and military authorities had been evacuated, the angry population sought a scapegoat, and found the Jews. Initially, Jews were employed to transport corpses to be identified and then buried in mass graves. At the same time, with the consent of the Germans, the Ukrainian militias together with the civilian population carried out massive pogroms, which in Lvov alone resulted in about 5,000 Jewish victims. There were also pogroms in many other Ukrainian cities such as Stanislavov, Zolochiv, Boryslav, and Drohobycz. Crime spawned crime.

On July 2, 1941, Einsatzkommando zur besonderen Verwendung arrived under the command of Eberhard Schöngarth, who arrested professors of the Polish Polytechnic and the University of Lvov. On July 4, 1941, 37 the professors were executed on the Wuleckie Hills.

In accordance with the Commissar Order (Kommissarbefehl) of June 6, 1941, issued under the command of Adolf Hitler, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel ordered any Soviet political commissar taken prisoner to be shot immediately. According to this order, the political commissars were not entitled to protection in accordance with the Geneva Conventions that should have been followed in the event of the capture of Soviet soldiers and combatants. Further orders also allowed access to SS prisoner of war camps for the purpose of filtering prisoners of war and shooting political commissars, party activists and Jews. A number of instructions, guidelines and orders were associated with the Commissar Order. In these, the ideological nature of the war between Nazi Germany and the USSR became fully apparent. According to Nazi Germany, the war was a conflict between opposing races and ideologies, and its aim was to destroy barbaric Bolshevism and gain a living space in the East. It was a war in which there was no place for respecting the rules of martial law. There was no room for mercy and human feeling. It was an absolute war, a total war, a war of extermination and extermination.

Fig. Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler during the visit of the Soviet POW camp

Total war

In this war, it was not about winning on the battlefield and defeating enemy troops, but about the biological destruction of human masses. The cruelty of this war manifested itself in the ruthless treatment of Soviet prisoners of war. From the beginning of the war to the spring of 1942, about 2.8 million Soviet prisoners of war died. Many of them were left in so-called “camps”, fenced with barbed wire, but lacking barracks or any other infrastructure. About half a million prisoners of war were executed or exterminated in concentration camps. Prisoners were deprived of food, and massive numbers died from hunger, disease and cold. In order to survive, some dug holes in the earth, and there were also numerous cases of cannibalism. The tragedy of Soviet prisoners is one of the greatest crimes of World War II, so far little known and almost forgotten.

The Special Operational Squads of the SD and the Police (Einsatzgruppen SD und Polizei) that followed the front line were to liquidate not only political commissars, but above all, Jews. The four Einsatzgruppen went in four different directions: Einsatzgruppe A followed Army Group A in the Baltic States; Einsatzgruppe B operated in the area occupied by Army Group Center in Belarus; Einsatzgruppe C were in the northern and middle areas of the Army Group South operation in Ukraine (this Einsatzgruppen was responsible for a massacre in Babi Yar in the suburbs of Kiev, among others); Einsatzgruppe D operated in the south of Ukraine – Bessarabia, the area of ​​Chişinău and Crimea. In total, the Einsatzgruppen with fewer than 3,000 people killed over 600,000 Jews. By the end of 1941, nearly half a million Jews had been murdered. Local militia made up of nationalists and collaborative civilians also took part in these massacres and pogroms of the Jews.

Minsk, 2.7.41
Gefangene russische Soldaten

Fig. The march of Soviet prisoners of war in 1941

At the end of September 1941, despite further successes and advancement to the east, German troops lost their momentum. Despite the encirclement of Leningrad, the city could not be conquered. Also, despite reaching a distance of several kilometers from Moscow, the city was not captured. The arrival of 16 Siberian divisions, well trained, armed and equipped with clothes adapted to winter conditions, caused the German attack on Moscow to cease. At that time, the borders of the USSR in the Far East were virtually defenseless, and the German troops attacking towards Moscow were in a state of exhaustion, with no replenishment of soldiers, clothes or functional equipment. The tactics of scorched earth used by the Soviet army, where everything that was not evacuated was destroyed, left no reserves of food, fuel or efficient transport for the Germans. Horses and wagons had to be used. Different width of railway tracks of the Soviet railway lines with the rolling stock of European countries and necessity of reloading of goods as well as shortage of wagons prevented the transport of necessary supplies over the thousands of kilometers occupied by German troops. Many soldiers died or were injured, and early frosts caused frostbites in the legs and hands. The mobilization of new, trained soldiers in Germany was insufficient. Military equipment was also often damaged or destroyed. Several hundred tanks were destroyed or required renovation after traveling around 2000 kilometers. By the end of the campaign, the Second Panzer Group pf Heinz Guderian had only a few dozen functional tanks. At that time, the Soviet army had no reserves, and therefore, throughout the following year of 1942, until the battle of Stalingrad, the eventual victory remained undecided. Eventually, the anti-Nazi coalition won, but it took three and a half years and tens of millions of lives.

Fig. Destroyed Soviet tanks on the Eastern Front

About the Author
Historian and political scientists. Living and working in Israel for over 20 years, observing fascinating developments in the Middle East and Europe. His interests include history, archeology, politics, photography, sport and traveling.
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