01 October 2008

Expansion & Invasion: Operation Barbarossa

By Carrie Lofty

One of the reasons I'm fascinated with WWII is because of the sheer scale of the destruction. My mind cannot grapple with the numbers. Researching and studying smaller parts of the larger conflict does help--how a single family survived, or the exploits of a particular commander. Only through such examples can I come to grips with portions of the carnage.

Because, frankly, the entire scope is beyond comprehension.

Take Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941. No other battle in the history of mankind used as much materiel, covered as much territory, or took as many lives.

Axis army divisions under German authority included forces from Romania, Finland, Italy, Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary, and Spain, and numbered approximately 5.5 million armed combatants, employing 3,600 tanks and nearly 5,000 aircraft. The Soviet army with forces from Russia, Poland, Belarus, Moldova, the Ukraine, and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia numbered nearly three million troops and had access to 15,000 tanks and 40,000 aircraft.

Are the number boggling your mind yet? Eight and a half MILLION soldiers.

The entire battle raged over seven months, during which the Axis coalition occupied more than 500,000 square miles of territory populated by 75 million citizens. As troops moved eastward, Hitler ordered the main thrust of his forces to swing south and take Kiev--diverting attention away from Moscow for four crucial weeks. This allowed Moscow, under the leadership of crafty General Zhukov, to dig in and prepare for an eventual attack.

The attack on Kiev is considered the largest encirclement of a city, with more than 500,000 Soviet soldiers completely surrounded and forced to surrender. Of those captured and taken to POW camps, only one in three ever saw their homes again. Attrition rates among captured soldiers on both sides were high because of winter conditions, exhaustion, malnutrition, and abuse.

Back in Moscow, Zhukov declared martial law and ordered the city's women to dig trenches, reinforce buildings, continue manufacturing munitions, and to prepare for all-out battle. Stalin stayed in the city and regularly delivered speeches, thereby bolstering morale. With Napoleon's failed invasion in mind, they thought they could hold out until winter.

But months of fighting had left the Red Army vastly depleted. Stalin's spies in Tokyo assured him that the Japanese planned no immediate assault on the eastern edge of Russia, so Zhukov was permitted to call in 30 divisions of skiing soldiers from Siberia. The Axis had no idea.

The weather turned, with temperatures dropping to records of -30C (-22F). Snow fell. Tanks and men froze. But the brief thaw that followed proved much worse, bogging down heavy vehicles on all sides. Only once the ground froze entirely did the Axis make additional eastward progress toward Moscow. The snows were so thick that the bodies of animals and men were stacked along the roadside to delineate where the roads ended and the fields began. Conditions completely grounded the Luftwaffe. Back on the German home front, coats and warm weather gear were collected from the citizens and shipped eastward. The Russian soldiers, by contrast, never lacked for winter clothing.

The Axis fought to within a mere 15 miles of the Soviet capital. Fifteen miles. But that's as far as the got. The newly built-up Soviet forces began a counter-attack on December 5, pushing the Axis back nearly 200 miles in less than four weeks.

As for total casualties, we're back to numbers that boggle the mind. The German army suffered more than a quarter million dead and half million wounded, with additional casualties among Axis divisions. The Soviets suffered 800,000 dead, countless more wounded, and 3.3 million soldiers captured. This does not count civilian casualties throughout the Soviet possessions. Stalin used the evacuation of German POWs as an excuse for ethnic cleansing in Russia, exporting 1.4 million Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, Chechens, and Ingushs to places such as Kazakhstan.

The battle was in no way decisive, despite unimaginable losses on both sides. Operation Barbarossa was only the first major offensive in the Eastern Front of the European Theater. Germany went on to lay siege to both Stalingrad and Leningrad, only to have both offenses repulsed. The scope of destruction, and the number of soldiers and citizens killed as these two massive empires collided will never truly be known. And as for me, I will never be able to make sense of those horrific numbers.