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June 22,1941-Operation Barbarossa



Operation Barbarossa in progress

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

WORLD WAR II: When Adolf Hitler founded his third Reich, most Germans believed they had found their man of destiny. Humbled, despite their mighty efforts in the First World War, feeling betrayed by both external and internal forces, seeing their once strong and orderly country reduced to chaos and near anarchy it seemed in 1933 to many Germans that the National Socialist Party of Hitler was the benediction the nation had prayed for.

By 1939 the discipline and the efficiency of the Germans had once again created a powerful nation with an awesome military machine. The capable and 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, outstanding bravery and capability were demanded of them.”

As the war drums rolled across Europe the aggressive German army triumphed with surprising ease over once vaunted armies of Poland, France and other European nations. In the case of the French, they out numbered the Germans in many strategic aspects such as men and tanks.

But in military thinking they were stuck in Napoleonic times when the cavalry charge won the day. The Germans on the other hand were ready for mobile warfare fought with mechanised armoured forces 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 Stalinist system did not provide statistics at information bureaus. But it was obvious that in comparison to Western Europe it 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 and this proved a terrible obstacle in 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 is 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 emphasised his conviction that the Soviet Union was no match for the proven and 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 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 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 limited resources and a numerically weaker army were gambling on the efficiency and the capabilities of its soldiers to bring them a quick victory. For operational purposes they divided their forces into 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 fateful invasion of Russia. Starting their Eastward thrust at about 3 a.m. on that day the Germanic war machine once again gave an almost flawless display of its awesome prowess.

Within 48 hours more than 2000 Russian fighter planes were down. The German Panzer divisions exploiting the gaps punched in the defensive barriers of the Russians by their opening salvos drove on eastward relentlessly with the aim of achieving strategic dominance while leaving the task of destroying the shocked and confused stragglers of the enemy forces to the following infantry divisions.

By mid-July, in just three weeks of fighting, the Russians had lost 3500 tanks, 6000 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 an 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 who was no match in the battle field to the masterful Teutons it did not take very long for the German fighters to realise that in the Russian vastness they were facing a fight to the death.

The German skills confronted Russian stubbornness, the attackers 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 early 1945. The young soldiers of the two nations were locked in a war of savagery on a scale rarely witnessed in human conflict.

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 have learnt in our blundering and sputtering separatist war the tragedy and the waste of it all. But paradoxically, war often brings out some of the best qualities in men.

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 oneself. The stage and the human actors of that bloody drama to this day 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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