Invaders. On 22 June 1941 at dawn, after armoured troops, the masses of the German infantry rushed into the USSR.

On the serene, sunny Sunday morning 22 June 1941 German armies and their satellites invaded the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The greatest military campaign in the whole human history unfolded along a gigantic front from the Arctic seas to the Caucasian Mountains. The war was not declared in advance: by hitlerite habits it was yet another bandit assault.

The preparations for the war were conducted in Germany since long. On 21 July 1940 already, it means during the Battle of Britain, Adolf Hitler ordered his Supreme Commander of the Land Forces, Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, to start studies on the plan of the invasion of the USSR. Ten days later the prospective time of the invasion was set: spring 1941. On 18 December 1940 the outline of the plan, which got the codename Barbaroßa, was signed by Hitler. The same day the commanders of the army, air forces and navy received secret directives that the armed forces of Germany must be prepared, even before the conclusion of the war with England, to defeat Soviet Russia in one rapid campaign. They assumed that it would be a real spectacle of the lightning war. The directives in particular read:

The mass of the Army stationed in Western Russia is to be destroyed in bold operations involving deep penetrations by armored spearheads, and the withdrawals of elements capable of combat into the extensive Russian land spaces is to be prevented.

By means of a rapid pursuit a line is then to be reached from beyond which the Russian air force will no longer be capable of attacking German home territories. The final objective of the operation is to be the attainment of a line sealing off Asiatic Russia and running, in general, the Volga-Archangel. From such a line the one remaining Russian industrial area in the Urals can be eliminated by the Air Force should the need arise.

On the eve of the invasion German armed forces were expanded to eight and half million men, out of which 6,000,000 served in the army and 1,700,000 in the air forces. Land forces possessed 215 divisions, which included 21 armoured, 14 motorized and 2 airborne ones. To the onslaught on the Soviet Union were designated 152 divisions, including 19 armoured and all the motorized ones; 3,300,000 men altogether. German air forces designated for the same purpose numbered 1,200,000 men - air crews, mechanics, airfield personnel, sentry and support servicemen. Hitler's satellites provided further 16 Finnish and 13 Romanian divisions, as well as 3 Finnish, 9 Romanian and 4 Hungarian brigades. This manpower was supported by 48,000 pieces of artillery, 3,000 tanks and gun-carriers, and 5,000 aircraft (4,000 German).

It was the greatest military power one country ever collected against another one. It was deployed in three strategic groups. The Army Group North, concentrated in East Prussia, had to roll the Baltic republics and take Leningrad (Petersburg); its two armies and one armoured group altogether possessed 25 divisions including 6 armoured and motorized ones. Two Finnish armies had to strike against Leningrad and Karelia, and in the Far North the Army Norway, composed of four German and two Finnish divisions, had to take Murmansk. The Army Group Centre had to advance from occupied Poland towards Vitebsk, Smolensk and Gomel. Its task was to encircle and annihilate Soviet forces in White Russia and open the way to Moscow with the forces of two armies and two armoured groups (altogether 50 divisions including 15 armoured and motorized). Finally, the Army Group South, deployed between the Carpathian Mountains and Black Sea, had to strike against Kiev and Odessa, force Dnieper, and by seizure of the Ukraine, Crimea and Donbass open way to Volga and Don. Two German armies and an armoured group, two Romanian armies and a Hungarian corps made it the strongest group of all the three: 57 divisions, including 9 armoured and motorized ones, as well as 13 independent brigades. An air fleet supported each group; the Finnish air forces co-operated with them in the north and the Romanian in the south. Another 24 divisions, including 3 armoured, were kept in reserve.

And what was the state of military preparations in the USSR? A wartime officer of the Soviet General Staff, Sergei Shtemenko, wrote in his memoirs:

Of course, it was a great misfortune for our army and our country as a whole that on the eve of war we were deprived of many of our experienced military leaders. This made it very hard for the young men. They had to gain their experience in the course of battle and often paid too high a price for it. But they learned how to outwit and outfight the enemy in the end. [Shtemenko S. M. (2001).]

The Official History of the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union 1941-1945
, while using less pathetic language, is more precise in numbers:

In 1937-1938, as well as later, the best staff of commanding officers and political instructors of the Red Army was devastated in result of unjustified reprisals. Three Marshals of the Soviet Union (out of five): M. Tukhachevskiy, V. Blücher and A. Yegorov were accused in being "agents of foreign intelligence" and "enemies of the people", sentenced and executed. All the commanders of military districts perished. (...) From the army were purged all the corps commanders, almost all the division and brigade commanders, about the half of regiment commanders, members of military councils and political commissars of the military districts. (...) Generally in 1937-1938 reprisals affected one fifth of the officers' corps. [Великая Отечественная война Советского Союза, 1941-1945: Краткая история. (1984).]

While the authors of the Official History elucidate that the source of the reprisals was in Joseph Stalin's insane theory that "the greater successes the Soviet Union achieves in the building of socialism, the more the class struggle will intensify", it's worth mentioning that during the purges Stalin got rid first of all of those commanders, whose loyalty to the country and its political system, as well as professional skills were dubious. Their places were taken by new officers, who were educated and made careers in the Soviet Union, and whose loyalty was unquestionable. Their professionalism, however, often wished for better. True, most of the new commanders during the war proved excellent professionals, but, coming from lower levels of the chain of command, they needed to overcome a great lack of experience in commanding large units. And also, some commanders made grave mistakes in deployment and training of their troops, which proved disastrous on the initial stage of the war, and was the source of grandiose defeats.

Of course it does not mean that the Russians did not do anything for their defence. In the deepest secret five Soviet armies were deployed on the western frontiers. The naval forces in European waters were put in the state of permanent alert. Still those were insufficient measures. In January 1941 the Soviet armed forces had 4,826,000 men in active service - twice less than Germany alone, without her allies. Half of those forces - 170 infantry, cavalry, armoured and mechanized divisions, and two infantry brigades - were deployed in western military districts. Theoretically those were serious forces capable to conduct successful military operations. In fact their real potential fell way behind the number of divisions. Most of the divisions had files reduced according to the peacetime establishments; few units were upgraded to the full wartime establishments. Others were on various stages of upgrading. Large armoured units, being at various stages of formation, demonstrated especially lousy progress.

The whole Soviet grouping was stretched in a huge area, 4,500km long and 400km deep. The closest to the western state borders were the troops of the first strategic echelon - 56 divisions and 2 brigades. But even they were deployed in a 50km-wide operational zone. The divisions of the second strategic echelon were deployed 50 to 100 kilometres from the border, whereas the reserve units were scattered 150 to 400 kilometres away from it. All the armoured divisions went to the making of forces of the second strategic echelon and reserves. The system of mobilization supplies was also awkward. Substantial number of storages and concentration centres were located too far westward and inevitably fell into enemy hands during the first days of the war.

The German superiority came first of all from the concentration of strong, consolidated assault forces deployed on the borders or transferred there before the invasion with fast railway transports. The first echelon of the German troops comprised 103 divisions including 10 armoured; almost twice as much as the Soviet divisions. German divisions with full establishments and equipment possessed substantial combat power. Whereas Soviet divisions, whose forces were lighter than those of the German ones and remained reduced to the peacetime establishments, had incomplete files, weaker firepower and inadequate means of transportation. On top of that in June 1941 many senior officers left for vacations, often just days before the outbreak of hostilities. In summer 1941 it was quite a common phenomenon that Soviet brigades and regiments were commanded by junior officers and even NCO's. In those circumstances it was impossible to deliver an efficient defence.

The technical superiority was also on the German side in every branch of service. For the war with the USSR they concentrated 2,800 modern tanks Pz.Kpfw.T-IV, whose construction modifications already utilized experiences of the campaigns in Poland and West Europe. They also possessed a number of older light tanks Pz.Kpfw.T-III and Pz.Kpfw.T-II, as well as other armoured vehicles. The Russians could use against them only 1,475 modern medium tanks T-34 and heavy tanks KV-1 built with the experience of the Finnish and Spanish Civil wars in mind. As to the older light tanks BT-7 and T-26, which constituted the core of the Soviet armoured forces, in the clashes with German machines they, by the opinion of an eyewitness, "were burning like matchboxes". Substantial air forces were concentrated in the western military districts, but their quality did not match quantity. The standard Soviet fighter plane was still I-16 Yastreb, which proved inferior to the German Messerschmitt Bf-109 yet in the skies of Spain. New fighters MiG-3, LaGG-3 and Yak-1 were just being introduced to the troops and constituted no more than 20% of equipment. The situation with bombers was better, but the standard Soviet fast bomber SB-2 had the bombload lesser than German Heinkel He-111, Junkers Ju-88 or Dornier Do-17, whereas the older TB-3, with bigger bombload, was slow and heavy, and made an easy prey to German fighters. And the Russians did not have a match to the German dive bomber Junkers Ju-87 Stuka since the first new aircraft of Il-2, Pe-2 and Tu-2 types did not leave production facilities yet. The situation in the artillery was no better. The Germans possessed more than double superiority in pieces of artillery of 76mm and bigger calibres. The Soviet troops experienced a particular shortage of anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery, and their standard anti-tank device was the obsolete 45mm 20K gun, while the Germans' was the new 75mm Pak.40 gun.

To augment their superiority in forces the Germans concentrated them on the axes of main strategic efforts. Therefore in the direction Kaunas - Daugavpils they had 7 armoured and 24 infantry divisions against Soviet 19 infantry divisions. In the direction Brest - Baranovichi they engaged 5 armoured and 11 infantry divisions against Soviet 7 infantry divisions. And in the direction Lutsk - Rovno they had 5 armoured and 14 infantry divisions against Soviet 9 infantry divisions. The first strike, carried out in the state of complete strategic surprise, brought a thunderous success. But the first success does not determine about the victorious war yet. Shtemenko recorded that

From the outset the atmosphere at the General Staff, though tense, was businesslike. None of us doubted that Hitler's surprise tactics could give him only a temporary military advantage. Chiefs and subordinates alike acted with their usual confidence. The comrades from the North-Western, Western and South-Western divisions sent out instructions to the troops and kept in touch by Baudot telegraph with the headquarters of the military districts, which were now becoming Front Headquarters. The remaining branches tried to carry on with their routine work but it was pushed into the background by the war. (...)

Events developed at lightning speed. The enemy was attacking our troops ferociously from the air and hurling powerful Panzer groups against the junctions between our Fronts. Reports were coming in from the North-Western Front about the extremely critical position of the left flank 11th Army (...) and the adjoining 8 Army (...). The latter, faced with the threat of encirclement, had been forced to withdraw towards Riga. [Shtemenko S. M. (2001).]

The Headquarters of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces of USSR, or Stavka, which was created on the next day after the German invasion, on 25 June ordered to withdraw troops from the western areas of White Russia, but the Germans were faster: on 28 June they took Minsk and encircled eleven Soviet divisions. Somewhat better was the situation in Volhynia. On 23 June the Russians counter-attacked there in the triangle Lutsk - Brody - Rovno. The battle, which engaged about 2,000 tanks on both sides, lasted almost a week and frustrated the German plans to encircle substantial Soviet forces near Lvov. Those forces withdrew to the line Korosten - Ploskirov. In the German rear the fortress Brest was fighting for a month till its entire personnel was dead.

On the first day of the war, 22 June evening, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, declared in a radio broadcast:

The Russian danger is therefore our danger and the danger of the United States just as the cause of any Russian fighting for his hearth and home is the cause of free men and free peoples in every quarter of the globe.

It was speaking the man, who certainly had never been a friend of Russia as country or communism as system. But the skilful politician he was understood that without the war in the East the lots of the whole world war would not spare the worst experiences to his own country. On many occasions he augmented his views by saying: I have only one purpose: the destruction of Hitler. If he were to invade Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil. [Churchill W. S. L. (1986c).] During the first days and weeks of the onslaught Churchill worried about the Soviet Union as much as about Great Britain. Because his staff officers' calculations based on the news from the eastern front, were very much pessimistic. The Soviet forces' capabilities to resist were estimated for six weeks to two months, while only the Soviet resistance could dismiss the immediate menace to the British Isles. On 24 June President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the name of the United States also declared aid to the invaded country.

On 30 June in Moscow was created the State Defence Committee - the wartime supreme state body to control and co-ordinate the war effort. To the making of the committee went leading Soviet statesmen and militarymen, and its president became of course Joseph Stalin. Several days later the committee created three commands of the strategic theatres and entrusted them to three Marshals: Kliment Voroshilov in the North-West, Semyon Timoshenko in the West and Semyon Budyonny in the South-West.

In the end of June the Soviet Supreme Command decided, due to heavy losses in the battles along the state border, to withdraw troops from the frontier areas and unfold strategic defence along rivers Dnieper and Western Dvina (Daugava). But the Germans managed to reach Dvina in its lower, Lettonian stream before the arrival of the Soviet troops, seize Daugavpils on 26 June and open the way to Pskov. On Berezina River Soviet mechanized troops managed to halt the Germans, but only for two days. Then the Germans forced the river anyway and in the beginning of July reached Dnieper and the upper stream of Dvina. In the south the Germans on 9 July took Zhitomir and were pushing towards Kiev. During the first three weeks of the war the Red Army had to abandon Lithuania, Lettonia, White Russia, Moldavia and a big part of the Ukraine. German troops advanced into the Soviet Union some 450 to 500 km in the north-west, 450 to 600 km in the west and 300 to 350 km in the south-west; Leningrad, Smolensk and Kiev were menaced.

This success was bought at an enormous price; German losses were bigger than in all the campaigns of 1939 - 1941 altogether. The official German sources, which are very likely to diminish the figures, on 19 July 1941 reported the loss of 100,000 soldiers, 1,284 aircraft and 50% of tanks. The losses of the Red Army, which waged defence fights in extremely dramatic circumstances, were even bigger. Various sources account about 600 to 800 thousand killed soldiers; the number of POW's, according to the German sources, exceeded 300,000 in July and 600,000 in September. The dimensions of the defeat were magnified by the losses in all the kinds of weapons and equipment, as well as ammunition. It is worth to mention that on the first day of the war only some 2000 ammunition storages fell in German hands. The invaders grasped the strategic initiative for many long months.

The sources of the disaster were miscellaneous and complicated. Many political, economic and military factors of both international and domestic nature contributed to it, and all of them had been eagerly discussed ever since the outbreak of the Germano-Soviet war. The authors of The Official History of the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union 1941-1945 particularly emphasize that

in result of the defeat the Western European countries had suffered during the initial stage of the Second World war, hitlerite Germany (...) had seized the economic and military resources of almost the whole Western Europe. In the beginning of June 1941 the hitlerite army possessed the most modern at the time combat equipment and had gained valuable combat experience. The Red Army did not possess such an experience. Its commanding staff, substantially refreshed on the eve of the war, had no chance to gain experience in commanding large tactical and operational units. The troops did not get acquainted well enough with the newest, most modern equipment, which was just introduced to the Red Army. (...) Due to termination of the operations in western and south-eastern Europe, Germany could concentrate the bulk of their armed forces for the invasion of the USSR. [Великая Отечественная война Советского Союза, 1941-1945: Краткая история. (1984).]

Those circumstances, favourable to Germany and simultaneously unfavourable to the Soviet Union, augmented the surprise, which was the invasion of the hitlerite armies. The invasion surprised Soviet people, it surprised the Soviet armed forces, and it surprised Stalin and his closest associates. It was their grave mistake that till the fatal day of 22 June 1941, having no basis whatsoever to do so, they dismissed a possibility of a German aggression against the USSR in the summer of 1941. They believed in the validity of the non-aggression pact with Germany concluded on 23 August 1939. Of course Stalin could not know that few weeks later Hitler called the pact "just a scrap of paper" worth respecting only "as long as it serves a certain purpose". But the German dictator on many occasions clearly demonstrated his absolute disregard for any international agreements he had signed. Besides, it is impossible to hide military preparations of such a scale. A lot of alarming and reliable information about the pending conflict was collected through diplomatic channels, through intelligence nets, from the Polish and Czechoslovak resistance, from the air and naval reconnaissance, and from the border guards. But simultaneously the Germans had launched an unparallelled disinformation campaign, designed to hide its real intentions, and confuse the enemy with forged information.

This was a big German success, and a serious mischief to the USSR, which had catastrophic consequences. Particularly it caused an avalanche of erroneous decisions of the people responsible for defence. The new People's Commissar for Defence, Timoshenko (replaced Voroshilov in May 1941), and the new Chief of General Staff, General Georgiy Zhukov (replaced gen. Kirill Meretskov in February 1941), were left very little time to work out the plan of the defence of the state borders, and more so they were late with introducing this plan in the troops. On top of that the whole plan based on old, obsolete military doctrines, and required a lot of time to mobilize and deploy the armed forces. But there was no time. Soviet reserve troops were arriving in their concentration areas already in the course of the hostilities, were introduced to the fights straight away, isolated one from another, and were beaten one part at a time. The attempts of some more energetic commanders of the frontier military districts to strengthen, at the eve of the outbreak of the war, the defence of the westernmost approaches were categorically terminated by the Chief of the General Staff. For example on 10 June 1941 he wired to the commander of the Kiev Special Military District:

June 10, 1941 Top Secret

The Head of Border Troops of the NKVD UkrSSR reported that the commanders of the fortified areas were instructed to deploy troops in approaches.

Report with the reference to the People's Commissar of Defence, on what basis the troops of the Kiev Military District fortified areas were ordered to take positions in approaches. Such an action could provoke the Germans for an armed conflict, and is fraught with all sorts of consequences. Cancel the orders immediately, and report who exactly is responsible for their arbitrary issue.

Unfortunately, there were more examples of that sort. Obviously, they all were in line with the directives of the Kremlin. The notorious order "not to surrender to provocation" - another words not to undertake any combat action - was in effect in troops at dawn on 22 June 1941 when the first shells and bombs started hammering their positions. They were not prepared for such a situation, and had no means to undertake the first steps to repulse the attack. The situation was better in the navy, where the supreme commanders took the risk to secretly put naval forces in the state of combat alert, whereas the state of preparedness in the air forces was lamentable. Some 1,700 aircraft were caught by surprise on their airfields and destroyed on the ground. 

Nevertheless German hopes for a swift and easy onslaught were frustrated. Already towards the end of June German propaganda's boastful reports from the eastern front changed to somewhat balanced tone. On 29 June there was published an article in Völkischer Beobachter pointing out that the Russian soldier surpasses our adversaries in the West in his contempt for death. Endurance and fatalism make him hold out until he is blown up with his trench of falls in hand-to-hand fighting. On 6 July a somewhat similar article appeared in Frankfurter Zeitung, which stated that the mental paralysis which usually follows after the lightning German break-throughs in the West did not occur to the same extend in the East. In most cases the enemy did not lose his capacity for action, but tried in his turn to envelop the arms of the German pincers. To the Germans it was in fact a surprising novelty, which later on in September was described as follows in Völkischer Beobachter:

At the German crossing of the Bug the first waves of the attack were in places able to advance quite freely; then suddenly a murderous fire was opened on the succeeding waves at the same moment that their predecessors were fired upon from the rear. One can but praise such remarkably fine discipline, which enabled the defenders to hold a position, which was already as good as lost. [Fuller J. F. C. (1993).]

However, despite the hard defence, on 16 July the Germans took Smolensk. The effort they built up in this particular direction signalized their design to reach Moscow. By night from 21 to 22 July the Luftwaffe made its first air raid over the Soviet capital. It was a rather small operation and the well-prepared anti-aircraft defence prevented the city from major damages, but since then the German air operations over Moscow persisted. Wrote Shtemenko:

The bombing of Moscow grew in intensity. Alerts were sounded nearly every night. Sometimes bombs fell quite close to the General Staff. The shelter in the basement, though quite unsuitable, now had to be used for work as well. Soon the decision was taken that the General Staff should spend the night in Byelorusskaya Underground Station, where a command post and communications centre had been fitted out.

This meant that we had to pack our papers in our cases every evening and set out for Byelorusskaya Station. All night the central command post would be functioning on the half of the platform, while the other half, separated from us by only a plywood partition, would at dusk fill up with Muscovites, most of them women and children. Like ourselves, they took refuge there without waiting for an alert and made up their beds for the night. Such conditions were not, of course, very convenient for work, but the worst of it was that this daily coming and going wasted much precious time and upset our routine. [Shtemenko S. M. (2001).]

But the defence hardened daily. The Soviet command was learning the enemy's tactics and applying the reserves wiser. On 30 July the Army Group Centre was forced to assume defence. It meant that the advance in the important strategic direction - to Moscow - stalled. At the same time the advance of the Army Group North was brought to a halt near Leningrad. The fights concentrated in the south, where in September it came to the battle for Kiev and the passages across the Dnieper. By then the command of the strategic theatre South-West realised, that it had too few troops to resist the catastrophe mounting on its right wing. To hold the positions in that sector they needed substantial reinforcements; neither the theatre command nor the Stavka could detach any forces. The only logical solution would be a prompt withdrawal from the vicinity of Kiev and rebuilding a consolidated defence along one of the rear positions.

On 11 September the South-West command asked permission of the Supreme Commander to start withdrawal. This however made Stalin berserk; he demanded that Kiev be defended at any price. Since Budyonny's assessment of the situation was somewhat different from the Stavka's, Stalin dismissed Budyonny from the command of the South-West theatre and appointed Timoshenko instead. Timoshenko assumed command on 13 September, when the German troops had already taken Glukhov, Konotop, Bakhmach and Nezhin, and the advanced units from the 2nd Armoured Group had taken Romny. The day before forces of the 1st Armoured Group and 17th Army from the bridgehead near Kremenchug struck northward along the axis of the 2nd Group's advance and seized Khorol (40km south-east to Lubny). The Soviet 38th Army (Gen. Nikolay Feklenko), cut out from the 26th Army (Gen. Fyodor Kostenko) was retreating towards the low stream of the Psiol River to protect Poltava from the west. On 15 September armoured divisions from German 1st and 2nd Armoured Groups met in the area Lokhvitsa - Lubny and closed the encirclement ring around the Soviet 5th, 21st, 26th and 37th Armies.

The Germans measured their success with four Soviet armies destroyed, Kiev taken and the whole Ukraine occupied. But the German losses were so huge, that the whole plan to take Moscow before the winter had completely derailed. Not only did they lose 500,000 soldiers, but they also lost the factor as valuable as the time. In the end of September they were pushing yet towards Donbass, Taurida and Crimea. On 30 September they broke through the Soviet defence on the Perekop isthmus and approached Sevastopol, which however would hold for many long months. On 16 October Odessa was abandoned to the Romanian troops, and on 11 November the invaders approached Rostov on Don. From there it was already close to the oil-rich Caucasus. Meanwhile both sides gathered more forces in the main, Moscow strategic theatre. The commander-in-chief of the German Army Group Centre, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, ordered to commence the general offensive to Moscow on 2 October. He possessed 77 divisions, including 14 armoured and 8 motorized ones, and the superiority over the Russians in proportion of 2.5:1.