Operation Barbarossa

Posted on Friday 22nd June 2012


It can be argued that a critical turning point in the Second World War was Hitler’s decision to invade Russia in June 1941; the largest military operation in human history in terms of manpower and casualties, with no less than 4.5 million men of the Axis Power advancing on a 2,900 kilometre front. Planning for Operation Barbarossa began in December 1940 and the military operation itself ran until the winter of 1941. The apparently unstoppable German-led assaults initially crushed the Soviet resistance but the Red Army’s resilience and determination to protect the Soviet Union, aided by the harsh winter conditions and over-extended lines of communication, checked the Nazi onslaught.
In the early hours of 22 June, to the sole accompaniment of croaking frogs along the River Bug, German soldiers had wrapped rifles, gas masks and bayonets in blankets to deaden the sound. The hands of synchronized watches reached 3.15 am and it was as if the world had exploded. Russian frontier guards stared in horror at a dawn sky suddenly fractured with the brilliance of 6,000 flashes from the German guns. Punch drunk with sleep and fumbling for their tunic buttons, the guards stumbled from their barracks, gasping and choking through the acrid smoke. To the sound and sight of the guns had been added the squeal and the clatter and the thud of tanks. As others sought feverishly to detonate demolition charges, assault parties dashed across bridges while elsewhere Heinkel 111 bombers bombed Soviet airfields and dropped mines in the Black Sea and Baltic.
Three Army Groups had been tasked to deliver the gargantuan thrusts. The Baltic and, above all, Leningrad, would be secured by Army Group North while Moscow would be the responsibility of Army Group Centre. Generalfeldmarschall Rundstedt, commander of Army Group South, intent on thrusting deep into the Ukraine, was the ultimate authority for the Romanian forces involved and ultimately for the Hungarian ones also. Rundstedt’s force had a total of forty-one German divisions, five were Panzer and three motorized. The equivalent of fourteen Romanian divisions were under his control.
The satellite forces immediately created problems for Rundstedt who, as well as commanding an army group, had been obliged to call on additional skills as a diplomat. Neither Romania nor Hungary, who incidentally shared a meagre armoury of obsolete French weapons, poorly trained commanders and peasant conscripts, were prepared to be docile comrades in arms. They had to be kept apart.
The fact that Hitler deeply distrusted the Hungarians scarcely helped either. Rundstedt also had an Italian corps and a Slovakian mountain division wished upon him. As for the Slovakians, some 57,000 had been drafted early in 1941 and total Slovak combatants amounted to just over 90,000 –
Neither the civilian population of Slovakia nor the Army were able to work up much enthusiasm about the attack on the Soviet Union. An SD report, issued from Gestapo headquarters at Prinz Albrecht Strasse in Berlin on 17 July, 1941, noted sourly: ‘Wide circles are of the opinion that the fight against Bolshevism by Slovaks against their own brethren has to be condemned.’ Things were seen to be little better in the Army where there was widespread feeling that the Soviet Union was the home of Russians, Ukrainians and White Russians with whom they had no quarrel.
Hitler knew full well that if he was to get the full support from Romania that he was counting on, account would have to be taken of Antonescu’s stubborn nationalist pride. With characteristic cunning, he appointed him to the command of Army Group Antonescu, a force consisting of the fourteen divisions of the 3rd and 4th Romanian Armies and Generaloberst Ritter von Schobert’s llth German Army of seven divisions, some of which were armoured and some motorized. The Army Group would remain in being for as long as the coming campaign in Northern Bukovina and Bessarabia lasted.
Swollen with pride and nationalistic fervour, Antonescu refused resolutely to place his Romanians under overall German command, insisting that rather they would operate under Rundstedt’s strategic direction.
General von Schobert’s mission was to bolster the Romanian advance to the rivers Prut and Dniester and push ahead into Bessarabia and the Ukraine. The liberation of Northern Bukovina was to be entrusted to the Romanian Army. That an attack was going to be made on Soviet territory from Romania gave new life to the long-standing spectre in Hitler’s mind of a savage Russian riposte against the vital Ploiesti oilfields and he now ordered the switch of Schobert’s Panzer divisions from 11th Army to reinforce 1st Panzer Army in southern Poland.
Army Group South
At 0100 hours on 22 June, 1941, Army Group South reported their readiness for operations by passing the codeword Wotan to OKW. Two hours later, the entire German invasion force swept forward on a front of 500 miles, from the Baltic to the Hungarian border –
Rundstedt’s opponents were the four armies of the Kiev Special Military District, commanded by a veteran of the Russo-Finnish War, Lieutenant General Mikail Kirponos. Generaloberst Ewald von Kleist’s Panzergruppe was to spearhead the advance towards Kiev and soon found that they had a tougher fight on their hands than they had bargained for. The stubborn resistance they encountered as they advanced towards the Dnieper imposed a delay on Rundstedt’s plans and it was not until 2 July that 11th Army was able to lead the way over the Prut for Army Group Antonescu. With fine bombast, Antonescu proclaimed on the national radio ‘Romania has gone into action by the side of her German ally. I, the Conductator, now give the Army the order “Treceti Prutu!” (Cross the Prut!).’
Despite the loss of his Panzer divisions, Schobert was across the Prut on that same day and followed this by a rapid thrust towards Mogilev on the Dniester, having brushed aside all attempts by three mechanized corps to stop him. By 8 July, he had a bridgehead over that river. Meanwhile, the Romanian 3rd Army had found that the province of Northern Bukovina was only lightly defended and its liberation was completed by the 9th.
Further south, however, the Romanian 4th Army had to contend first with flooding on the Prut and then with Russian counter-attacks. The toughest of these was at Cornesti Massif, directly in line with the Prut. German LIV Corps, spearheaded by the 1st Panzer Division, sped from the north, unhinging the Russian defences, at the cost of four destroyed and five damaged tanks. Army Group Antonescu was reckoned to have achieved its aims and was dissolved. For the 4th Army, which had strained at the leash for the major assault on the Soviet Union, the cost had been daunting. The total of wounded, dead and missing was put at more than 21,000. And that was only the beginning. Nevertheless, army morale remained high; Antonescu made no attempt to lessen his allegiance to Hitler, his vanity duly flattered with the award of the Ritterkreuz, On 3 August, 4th Army began crossing the Dniester. The mission, to be accomplished while 11th Army pressed on to the Crimea, was to cut off the key naval base of Odessa, from the main retreating Soviet front.
The Russians, who had been encircled at Uman and Kiev, threw in everything they had in Odessa’s defence. Throughout the siege, the city, which fell after two-and-a-half months of bitter fighting, was able to maintain communications with both the Crimea and the Caucasus; the Black Sea Navy and marines were in the forefront of defence. Furthermore, the Russians moved a substantial amount of military hard-ware from Odessa to Sebastopol and the Caucasus, although much of the equipment had ultimately to be abandoned.
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Heavily armed and confident German soldiers being transported towards the enemy.
Romanian forces were not long alone in Odessa; Himmler’s SS had seen to that. Special mobile formations charged with carrying out liquidations in Eastern countries were a component of Amt (Office) IV of the RSHA under Reinhard Heydrich. These were the Einsatzgruppen (SS Special Action groups or extermination squads) which, Einsatzkommando, operated throughout the Eastern Theatre with SD and Gestapo operatives as components.
Einsatzkommando II B from Einsatzgruppen D contained an entire operational company from Romanian intelligence. This service had been established by Antonescu shortly before the outbreak of war with the purpose of protecting the rear of the Romanian Army against espionage, sabotage and terror. The speciality of the Einsatzkommando II B was to press victims into warehouses or huts which had been drilled with holes into which machine-gun muzzles were inserted. The warehouses were then set on fire to ensure that there was no escape for those who had survived the fire power. For work in the Soviet Union, there were four Einsatzgruppen. Their function was referred to in SD directives in characteristically euphemistic language. The Einsatzgruppen would ensure ‘the security of political life’ and would conduct all ‘enterprises necessary to the national economy and so, also, to the war economy’. In fact, ‘security of political life’ involved mass murder.
Assessments of the Romanians as battlefield fighters varied. The contemporary Russian-born historian Alexander Werth revealed: ‘The Russians were very surprised by the toughness of the Romanian troops, since Romania’s military record, particularly in the First World War, had not been exactly glorious.’ Rundstedt, though, considered that they had made heavy weather of Odessa. The average Romanian infantry division had been revealed as having little offensive potential; training and leadership had been inadequate. According to Soviet figures, overall losses at Odessa, the majority of which were Romanian, stood at 110,000, of which more than 4,500 were officers.
Above all, there had been a demanding role for the aircraft of Fortele Aeriene Regaleale Romaniei (the Royal Romanian Air Force, FARR). The cost at Odessa was high, inevitably, since FARR was an outdated, mongrel affair made up of Italian, French, British and Polish aircraft purchased before the war. Spares came mostly from Germany and were scarcely enough to cope with a high wastage rate. The bomber force had remained at eight squadrons, but the numbers of observation, fighter and reconnaissance squadrons had been severely reduced in combat.
The Luftwaffe had pushed on into the Soviet Union, so the bulk of the air sorties fell to the FARR who were at the mercy of heavy Soviet anti-aircraft defences. At the siege of Odessa, women pilots flew with the Escadrilla Aviatie Sanitare, a casualty evacuation squadron whose aircraft sported the internationally-recognized Red Cross. Although popularly known as the Escadrilla Alb (White Squadron), at the outbreak of Barbarossa, the women’s white aircraft were over-painted with camouflage colours; few had confidence in Soviet respect for the Geneva Convention, although the Red Cross was retained.
Three pilots, Nadia Russo, Mariana Dragescu and Virginia Thomas, later to receive official Red Cross medals, scooped up wounded from the forward airstrips, flying at low altitudes to avoid enemy fighters. By the time the siege of Odessa was over, some 700 seriously wounded had been evacuated. The Squadron worked round the clock and there were no rest periods. The women slept on stretchers aboard the aircraft.
Throughout, Romania’s 4th Army was pushed to its limits and beyond. There had been no armoured assistance from Germany in support of the offensive in Odessa. The achievement there was considered a cause for celebration – triumphs were marked in part by the creation of Transnistra, an area which was incorporated into Greater Romania and comprised territory between the Dniester and the Bug in the southernmost corner of the Ukraine.
The main celebration, however, was reserved for a grandiose victory parade on 8 November in Bucharest when those who had fought at Odessa paraded through the Arc de Triomphe, which had been restored by King Carol in commemoration of the outcome of the First World War.
Generalfeldmarschall Keitel, who attended as Hitler’s representative and as head of OKW, showed due deference to Antonescu, a courtesy which did not prevent him from commenting later on the poor standard of the troops’ drill. King Michael, who presented decorations to officers and men, had remained in blind ignorance of the progress of the war until he received a wire from Hitler congratulating him on the capture of Odessa.
Relations between King and dictator remained arctic. Michael had already witnessed something of the harsh realities of war. From divisional headquarters, on a hill overlooking Bessarabia, he had watched an attack by Romanian troops and the riposte of Russian shells cutting down men whose columns had continued to advance. He had seen too Antonescu’s harsh treatment of his men. The King noted at Cernauti, in Bukovina, the absence of even the simplest medical facilities for the wounded.
Not everyone shared Antonescu’s elation. There were politicians who argued that Romania had done enough, that there was no reason for troops to advance beyond the River Dniester. Their voices had been drowned by belligerent cries at the victory parade of ‘Vrem Ardealul!’ (We want Transylvania!) and there was general dismay when, a month later, Britain declared war on Romania. On 12 December, prompted by Hitler and Mussolini, Antonescu declared war on the United States. There was now no going back.
If Antonescu was unashamedly elated over the prospect of war, Miklos Horthy and Hungary had mixed feelings, not least because the country’s armed forces were woefully ill-equipped. A basic distrust of Hungary had led Hitler to be cautious about his intentions, although hints had been dropped for some time in what the Fuhrer considered to be the safest quarters. At any event, the official reasons for the final decision came four days after the German declaration of war against Russia. Military aircraft carrying Soviet markings, appeared over the north-eastern city of Kass, causing casualties and damage. Casualties were given as twenty dead and forty-one wounded, with direct hits on a number of buildings, including military ones.
A communique from the Hungarian General Staff read:
In retaliation for the Russian air raids on Hungary, strong units of the Hungarian air arm this morning carried out successful raids on Soviet military objectives. Fires were caused and considerable damage was done. At several points along the front. Soviet batteries began an artillery duel and their fire was returned.
Then, to dispel all doubts, Bardossy, the Prime Minister, declared a state of war between Hungary and the Soviet Union.
The truth about these raids has never been established but there were no shortage of theories and general perplexity as to why Russia, at that time in the throes of withstanding German invasion, should gratuitously bomb Hungary. There was even a suggestion that the raid was either an error by Russians bombing off target from the eastern front or the work of disguised German aircraft seeking to provide Hungary with a pretext for declaring war. It made no difference; by now, the country had scented blood. Resources were few. The regular army was made up of nine army corps which comprised twenty-seven brigades or light divisions with a total infantry strength of 216,000, to which could be added two cavalry brigades and two motorized brigades.
The figures, however, told only half the story since fighting men had to rely on sub-standard equipment. Rifles frequently jammed and there was a shortage of anti-tank guns. As for the tanks themselves, these consisted at first of Ansaldo light armoured vehicles with fixed turrets. Home-grown Toldi and Turon tanks could not be produced fast enough and, for the start of Barbarossa, only 190 were in service.
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High spirits. German soldiers, with helmets off, march eastwards deeper into Russia.

High spirits. German soldiers, with helmets off, march eastwards deeper into Russia.
At first sight it was remarkable that Hungary’s so called Mobile Corps, under the ethnic German General Ferenc Szombathelyi and in reality only partly mobilized, did so well in its role of accompanying General Karl Heinrich von Stülpnagel’s German 17th Army and later First Armoured Group, of Army Group South, on its advance to the Dniester and the Donets rivers. Casualties overall were put at a modest 977, sustained under the fire of a Red Army in retreat.
The fact that their forces had carried their tasks both with credit and light casualties seemed sufficient reason to many Hungarians for the Mobile Corps to be withdrawn for a period of rest and recovery, sufficient resources being left in place to resist partisans. For once, the suggestion caught Hitler in a benevolent mood. He concurred.
There was still a whiff of euphoria from those early victories; the winter, after all, seemed far off. Besides, it could scarcely be denied that the triumphs had been considerable. By the end of June, two tank forces Panzer Groups 2 and 3 of Bock’s Army Group Centre – had cut through the grass and wheat landscapes of Belorussia towards Minsk, east of the German-Soviet border through occupied Poland. Three Russian armies, the Third, Fourth and Tenth had been ripped apart as if by giant claws.
In charge of Panzer Group 2, was General Heinz Guderian, already a living legend within the German Army - reckoned, not without good reason, to be the architect of the concept of fast moving Panzer forces on Blitzkrieg. His men were less reverential: they dubbed him ‘Der Schnelle Heinz’ (Hurrying Heinz) or ‘Hard arse Guderian.’
Minsk fell on 9 July, yielding some 324,000 prisoners. Ahead lay the ancient fortress of Smolensk, which was quickly to succumb to the German Blitzkrieg. Such victories as these were responsible for Halder writing in his diary: ‘It is probably no exaggeration when I contend that the campaign in Russia had been won in fourteen days.’
Smolensk was regarded as the key to victory and not just by the senior commanders. German troops, borne on a high tide of optimism, erected hand-painted signs. They read ‘To Moscow.’
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A map showing the direction of the German invasion.

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Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, Commander of Army Group South.

German LIV Corps, spearheaded by the 1st Panzer Division, sped from the north, unhinging the Russian defences...

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Panzerkampfwagen IIs and IIIs roll through ripening fields in Russian territory.
Operation Barbarossa 1941.

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Oberführer Dr Otto Ohlendorf.
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Marshal Ion Antonescu commanding the Romanian Army during Operation Barbarossa.
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Map showing the Front Line position on 1 October 1941, during Operation Barbarossa.

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General Heinz Guderian.
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The road to Moscow.

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