Adolf Hitler’s prospects looked rosy in the springtime of 1941 . The armies of Nazi Germany had swept across continental Europe. The island home of his surviving foe, Great Britain, was battered by bombs. He had crushed resistance in the Balkans, and German tanks dominated North Africa.
What to do next?
Hitler had long looked eastward for Germany’s lebensraum (or ‘living space.’) He had even described his plans for the future in his 1925 book, Mein Kamf, in which he blamed the Jews and Bolsheveks for Germany’s loss of the last war and plotted their downfall.
One would think that Stalin would have been at least a bit suspicious when German troops started massing at his borders.
Stalin, though, had written proof that Hitler would not attack. Germany and the USSR had signed a mutual non-aggression pact in 1939. Of course, Hitler had also proposed a 25 year pact of peace to the British, French, Belgians and Italians just before invading the Rhineland, (in breach of said pact,) and proclaimed in 1936, “Germany neither intends nor wishes to interfere in the internal affairs of Austria, annex Austria, or to conclude an Anschluss.” * He invaded Austria in 1938.
If Hitler’s writings and tendency to break faith weren’t enough cause for caution, one of Stalin’s own spies, Richard Sorge, gained intelligence that an attack was coming, and when. A German deserter crossed the borders and confirmed his report. Winston Churchill even wrote Stalin personally to warn him that it looked as if an invasion was imminent.
In spite of all of the signs, when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941 at 4:15 am, it appears that he achieved complete surprise. (Though it should be noted that in a conversation recorded in Churchill’s memoirs between himself and Stalin, Stalin stated that he’d known an invasion would come, but thought they had more time.)
1,200 Soviet aircraft were destroyed before noon, many still on the ground. The German army, divided into North, Centre and South groups, drove deep and fast into the USSR.
In the words of Molotov, Stalin’s Foreign Minister, “This incredible attack on our country is an act of treachery unequalled in the history of civilized nations.” **
Treacherous, yes, but it was effective.
In spite of fierce resistance, in spite of Stalin’s ‘scorched earth’ policy, in spite of counter attacks and brief rebuffs, by mid-July the German army had advanced 400 miles.
However, mid July also marked the signing of a pact between Great Britain and the USSR.
Winston Churchill had no love for Communism or Stalin, but he saw an Allied opportunity and seized it. On the evening of Hitler’s first assault on the USSR, he had broadcast, “Any man or state who fights on against Nazidom will have our aid.”*** He did not relinquish his political views, but urged his people to focus instead on the common Russian families and how they suffered under Hitler’s betrayal. The Allies were duty-bound to aid them. (And, in doing so, they stood to gain another, very large, Ally.)
Still, it would be some time before the Alliance could do either side much good. Britain’s resources were strained, and while the United States (still officially neutral) had agreed to divert British aid to the Soviets, the goods would still need to be transported through the U-boat riddled Atlantic.
The fighting ground on through the summer. Hitler’s armies advanced.
By September 4th, Leningrad was under siege. Thousands of people, trapped in the city, felt the bite of hunger. By the 11th, bread rations had to be reduced. Citizens began to conceal the dead in order to use their ration coupons. Leaving was not an option- the Germans were ordered to shoot anyone fleeing toward their lines. (Hitler did not want to have to tend to refugees.) Tens of thousands starved before the end of the year.
On September 19th, the Germans occupied Kiev, the USSR’s third largest city, taking hundreds of thousands of prisoners.
On October 6th Hitler launched a two-pronged attack on Moscow. Some women and children were evacuated, but thousands of the people were mobilized and put to work building fortifications – Stalin intended to hold Moscow at all costs.
In all of this, it’s easy to see Stalin’s lack of foresight. However, let’s pause for just a moment to look at Hitler’s choices.
He expected the eastern campaign to be finished quickly. He did not equip his troops for winter fighting. And, perhaps most importantly, when his generals urged him to strike for Moscow at once, he overruled them.
As a result, when the German army finally advanced towards Moscow, the first snows of the Russian winter had already fallen.
Perhaps Winston Churchill sums up this period the best.
“The wicked are not always clever, nor are dictators always right.” ***
Thanks for joining me for another little trip into WW2 history! Next time I dive into research, I intend to pick up with the story of Pearl Harbor, and the United States’ (official) entrance into the war.
Pearl Harbor naval base and U.S.S. Shaw ablaze after the Japanese attack
* Quote from Winston Churchill’s The Gathering Storm, pg 206.
** Quote from Hal Buell’s World War II Album: The Complete Chronicle, pg 111
***Quotes from Churchill’s The Grand Alliance, pg 372 and pg 368, respectively
In addition to these books, I found this site helpful in reminding me of Hitler’s policies: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/hitler_lebensraum_01.shtml
This site has a number of striking photos from Operation Barbarossa and the following months: https://gallimafry.blogspot.com/2011/12/6world-war-ii-operation-barbarossa.html