Operation Barbarossa | Daily News

Operation Barbarossa

“The German nation is sick of principles and doctrines, literary existence and theoretical greatness. What it wants is power, power, and more power. And who ever gives it power, to him will Germany give honour, and more honour than he can ever imagine”- Julius Frobel-1859

In 1933 when Adolf Hitler founded his Third Reich most Germans believed they had found their man of destiny. Humbled, despite their mighty efforts against the combined forces of many, including America, Britain, France, Russia in the First World War (1914-18), suspecting betrayal by both external as well as internal forces, their once strong and orderly country reduced to near anarchy, in 1933 to many Germans the National Socialist Party of Hitler seemed like the benediction the nation had fervently prayed for.

Under Hitler, by 1939 the efficiency, abilities and the discipline of the Germans had once again created a mighty nation with an awesome military machine. The capable, martial race was armed and ready. Led by its extraordinarily able General Staff, which both friend and foe considered a “corps d ’elite”, Hitler’s Wehrmacht was easily the best fighting machine in the world at the time. It was said of the German officer class that they were “men of outstanding intellectual ability and physical stamina, governed by a code of ascetic self-discipline. Their strength lay in their complete self-effacement to the point of anonymity. They were expected in times of peace to devote themselves wholly to knowledge and education. In war, total commitment: outstanding bravery and capability were demanded of them.”

European nations

As the war drums rolled across Europe the aggressive German army triumphed with surprising ease over once vaunted armies of Poland, France and other strong European nations. In the case of the French, the enemy in fact outnumbered the Germans in many strategic aspects such as in men and tanks. But in military thinking they seemed stuck in Napoleonic times when the cavalry charge won the day. The Germans on the other hand were ready for mobile warfare fought with mechanized armoured forces, closely supported by deadly accurate air and artillery power. The French were conquered in a few short weeks. The British were never more thankful for the English Channel! After a halfhearted attempt to subdue the stubborn island with air power alone, Hitler turned his eyes to the East. The stage was now set for the greatest human conflict in history.

The Soviet Union, the largest country in the world, and which perhaps maintained the biggest army at the time, was shrouded in mystery. The secretive Stalinist system did not provide statistics at information bureaus. But it was obvious that in comparison to Western Europe their land was poor and primitive. The Soviet roads were not anything like what the motorized German army had used in Europe. There were very few all-weather roads in the country, proving a terrible obstacle in the bad Russian weather conditions. And unlike other countries the Germans had vanquished in the previous summers, the Soviet Union was much too large to be brought under in one aggressive dash.

But the German army, full of confidence after its remarkable achievements in the previous campaigns, had come to believe that nothing was impossible for the German soldier. Addressing the higher echelons of the army Hitler boastfully predicted that when Operation Barbarossa, the name given to the German plan for the impending campaign against the Soviet Union, commenced, “the world will hold its breath”. “One good kick on the door and the entire rotten structure will collapse”, he further emphasized his conviction that the Soviet Union was no match for the proven, battle hardened German war machine. This confidence was reflected in the astonishing fact that the German army launched the war against the Soviet Union where it was expected to conquer an area of about one million square miles in one summer campaign with just a few more divisions more than it had deployed in the previous summer against France (1940), a country of approximately 150,000 square miles.

For the “good kick on the door” the Germans gathered in secret almost four million soldiers on the Russian border. Provided air cover by the vigorous Luftwaffe, supported by nearly four thousand pieces of heavy artillery and most importantly given the cutting impetus by the brilliantly led panzer divisions, the German army’s campaign in the East was indeed going to open with a breath taking fury.

In view of the immense land area it had to conquer with human resources Germany could not afford to keep in uniform for too long, the Wehrmacht had to gain a decisive result in that summer of 1941.With this strategic goal in mind, its military planners aimed at fatally wounding the Red army west of the Dnieper River. The Germans, committing themselves to a huge undertaking with a numerically weaker army, were gambling on the skills and capabilities of its soldiers to bring them a quick victory.

Russian defensive barriers

For operational purposes they divided their forces in to three large army groups. The Army Group North under the command of Field Marshal von Leeb was to capture the Baltic area and Leningrad. The Army Group Center under Field Marshal von Bock was to drive to Moscow through the Russian heartland. Field Marshal von Rundstedt leading the Army Group South was to bring the fertile Ukraine under its heel.

After a few nervous postponements, the date for the opening of the campaign was fixed for the 22nd of June, the same day that Napoleon, in 1812, launched his ill-fated invasion of Russia. Starting their eastward thrust at about 03 AM on that day, the Germanic war machine once again gave an almost flawless display of its awesome prowess. Within forty-eight hours more than two thousand Russian fighter planes were down. The German Panzer divisions exploiting the gaps punched by their opening salvos in the Russian defensive barriers drove relentlessly eastward with the aim of achieving strategic dominance, leaving the task of destroying the shocked and confused stragglers of the enemy forces to the rapidly following infantry divisions. By mid-July, in just three weeks of fighting, Russia had lost 3,500 tanks, 6,000 planes and more than two million men.

The famous German tank commander General Heinz Guderian leading a powerful armoured Corp attached to the Army Group Center noted in a memorandum that the “Russians were severely hampered by political demands of the State leadership and suffered a basic fear of taking responsibility. This, combined with bad coordination meant that orders to carry out necessary measures, counter-measures in particular, are issued too late. Soviet tank forces were insufficiently trained and lacked intelligence and initiative during the offensive”. In these early stages of the war, to many observers, it appeared that the Wehrmacht had once again delivered a death blow to a powerful adversary well before it could even comprehend the attackers diabolical intentions.

Although German propaganda portrayed the average Russian as a semi-Asiatic primitive with sub-human qualities and no match in the battlefield to the masterful Teutons, it did not take long for the German soldiers to realize that in the Russian vastness they were facing a fight to the death with this Slav/Mongol race. On that bloody battlefield German skills confronted Russian stubbornness, the attacker’s courage was met by the defenders recklessness and the conquerors contempt was matched by the hatred of resisters. The eastern campaign that began so dazzlingly for the invader on June 22, 1941 raged on in the mind-boggling hugeness of Russia until early1945. The young soldiers of the two nations were locked in a war of savagery on a scale rarely witnessed in human conflict. Russia alone suffered more than twenty million deaths in those four years of relentless combat.

War against terrorism

Nazism and Communism, the ideologies professed by the two armies that clashed with such bitterness in 1941, are dead in these countries today. Germany has rebuilt and is one of the most prosperous nations on the planet. Russia after her failed experiment with Communism is yet struggling to find a place in world affairs that befits its size and potential. But they both surely remember the four years when the best of these two brave nations fought on a terrible battlefield and often died a soldier’s death.

War is a terrible thing. Here in our little island we too learnt in our drawn-out and bloody war against terrorism, the tragedy and the waste of it all. But paradoxically, war often brings out some of the best qualities in man.

The titanic clash that began in that summer of 1941 demanded of the combatants, super human effort, amazing physical endurance, boundless courage, iron discipline, selfless comradeship and finally the unflinching sacrificing of one self. To this day, the bind boggling size of the battlefield and the heroism of the human actors of that bloody drama inspire awe by its sheer scale, intensity, wickedness and heroism.

“Two things have altered not, since first the world began, the beauty of the wild green earth, and the bravery of man.” 


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