Operation Barbarossa was the German codename for their attack on the Soviet Union, breaking the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939. Although planning for the offensive had began in the June of 1940, and the operation endured the name changes of 'Otto', then 'Fritz', it was not until June of 1941 that it was brought into motion.1 Operation Barbarossa began on the 22nd of June in 1941, and by the 2nd of December that same year the Wehrmacht had reached the outer suburbs of Moscow, the Russian capital. Four days later Marshal Zhukov launched the first proper Russian counter-offensive, and the Germans were driven back. The operation was extremely successful early on, yet the Germans were ultimately defeated.

Hitler had been waiting until the right time to strike against the Soviet Union, initially considering the offensive to take place sometime in the mid-1940’s, despite planning since 1940.2 Decisive German victories however, convinced Hitler that he should act earlier;
His original idea was to launch it that autumn, and he was only with great difficulty persuaded to drop so risky a scheme – the army, the generals pleaded, must have the whole of the dry season, from early May onwards, to engulf and annihilate Russian military power before the snows came.3
In the end, Hitler had to send troops in to assist Mussolini when the Italian army failed to successfully invade Greece in October of 1940. Still, whatever doubts Hitler had with Mussolini were not obvious – on the 27th of September 1940 he had Japan and Italy sign the Tripartite Pact,4 and on the day before the Barbarossa campaign Hitler wrote to Mussolini, confiding that:
...I again feel spiritually free. The partnership with the Soviet Union, in spite of the complete sincerity and efforts to bring about a final conciliation, was nevertheless often very irksome to me, for in some way or another it seemed to me to be a break with my whole origin, my concepts, and my former obligations.5

Stalin was anxious to avoid a war with Germany;
Throughout the first six months of 1941 he followed a policy of appeasement towards Hitler, and right up to the actual German attack on 22nd June forbade the Soviet commanders to take any step which might give the Germans the opportunity to claim provocation.6
Stalin also kept up the Soviet Union’s shipments of grain and raw materials to Germany, ignored German reconnaissance aircraft over Russia, and avoided building defences close to the front line. Stalin also repeatedly chose to ignore or show outright disbelief at any warnings he received that suggested Germany was poised to invade the Soviet Union.7 He was deeply distrustful of even his own agents, and he viewed any warning by British or American sources as ploys to lure him into war with Hitler. Even German deserters crossed the front line at Poland and gave warnings – which fell upon deaf ears.8

Hitler’s decision to invade Russia was nothing if not well documented. In his book 'Mein Kampf' he expressed the wish to have Lebensraum, literally “living space in the east” – for Germans. In addition, he was longing to attack directly the Jews, the Slavs, the Communist regime and the Bolsheviks in general: (see also second paragraph)
…the Russian State was not organised by the constructive political talent of the Slav element… And the end of the Jewish domination in Russia will also be the end of Russia as a state…9
Hitler had strategic arguments in favour of his decision to attack the Soviet Union as well as ideological ones; “He ((Hitler)) convinced himself that it was their hopes of Russia which led the British to continue the war10 The invasion and colonisation of the Soviet Union by Germans was Hitler’s ultimate dream, something he had been building up to since hostilities had begun.

Before the outbreak of war, both Russia and Germany took Balkan countries; Russia captured Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to build up a buffer zone against a possible attack, while the Nazis persuaded other Balkan countries to join the Tripartite Pact diplomatically – which made the Russians make accusations to the effect that Germany was breaking the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The German Yugoslavia campaign was not as easily won as expected – An uprising in Belgrade led Hitler to start 'Operation Retribution', which delayed Barbarossa by five weeks.11 On the 21st of June Moscow made a pact with the rebels in Belgrade, which may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back – it was provocation enough for Hitler to invade even if he had no other doubts.

Hitler gave the Red Army little credit:
You only have to kick the door in and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.12
For the most part he was right. Stalin’s purges of the 1930s took away ninety percent of his generals, 80% of his commanders, and over half his colonels,13 and he replaced them with inexperienced young men, or ineffectual and out-of-touch old ones. Although the Soviet Union far outnumbered Germany in infantry, tank and plane numbers, not all of them were near the front line, and even less were set up to swing into action – hundreds of planes were destroyed while on the ground by the Luftwaffe. In addition, much of the Russian vehicles were of outdated technology. Soviet tanks still followed outdated formations, and were torn up by the already proven Panzer divisions. Nazi troop advances of around one hundred kilometres per day were taking place.

Good weather and superior tactics led the German forces to capture town after town, sometimes with no Soviet resistance at all. The Wehrmacht, commanded by Field Marshal von Brauchitch, was operating in three huge army groups (North, commanded by Field Marshal von Leeb; Centre, by von Bock; and South, by von Rundstedt), and in September the force reached within four hundred kilometres of Moscow. Most of Hitler’s generals wanted to make the push to Moscow, but Hitler had other plans. General Heinz Guderian, in charge of the Panzer divisions spoke to Hitler about Moscow, and was told that; “My Generals know nothing about the economic aspects of war.14 Hitler wanted his armies to attack the Ukraine – centre of the Soviet Union’s industrial operations, and the city of Leningrad – a personal quest for him to crush the birthplace of Communism. Field Marshal von Manstein reflected that;
Hitler’s strategic aims were based primarily on political and economic considerations… ((The)) O.K.H. ((Army High Command)) on the other hand rightly contended that the conquest and retention of these undoubtedly important strategic areas depended on first defeating the Red Army. The main body of the latter, they argued, would be met on the road to Moscow…15
Hitler’s generals were probably right. This is the reason, for many historians, why Germany failed in Operation Barbarossa.16

The Wehrmacht successfully captured Kiev on the 26th September. Leningrad however, was a different story. The Germans managed to surround the city and besiege it; however the Soviet Marshal Georgi Zhukov, the commander who managed to defeat the Japanese in Mongolia was called in to help defend the city, which did not fall into German hands.17 The German offensive on Moscow was now in motion, and Zhukov was called back to plot the defence of the city. Moscow was the command centre for the Red Army, and the heart of the entire country, both economically and command-wise. However, while Hitler was intent on demolition the Red Army itself, his generals were squabbling over control and leadership over territories and cities. German progress was hampered also by its own ideological fascism – many Russians welcomed the German invaders, desperate for a change from the crushing rule of Stalin. What the Russians discovered were 'Einsatzgruppen' – German task forces which moved in after the army to exterminate racial enemies, ideological opponents, and various ‘anti-social elements’ of the Germans.18

If any one factor determined that the Germans would not achieve the goals of operation Barbarossa, it was the onset of the Russian winter. German soldiers at the front line gave accounts:
…In late September, it began to rain, and mud started to become a problem for us. Wind whipped the rain into our faces and soaked our uniforms as we marched. Snow came in early October, but it was not cold enough for the ground to freeze and everything turned to mud.19
Conditions quickly went from bad to worse for the attackers:
A hard freeze came on November 7, which proved both an advantage and a disadvantage. We could move again, but we were freezing because we still do not have winter clothing.20
The Germans were not supplied with either anti-freeze for their vehicles and equipment, nor with winter clothes – in August of 1941 Goebbels pushed for a national collection of winter clothing, which was turned down by the Wehrmacht leadership.21 The Nazi war machine ground to a halt within sight of Moscow.

Stalin was prepared throughout the whole war to “Trade Space for Time22 While the German army was advancing on Moscow, every civilian in the city was out digging anti-tank ditches. Stalin, in one of the best decisions of his life, listened to his spies for once – this time from Japan, who told him that Japan had eyes only for an attack on the United States, not the Soviet Union. Forty divisions of the Siberian Front, elite fighters in the freezing conditions of the Russian winter were stationed in the east in case Japan struck. Immediately, they were called back for the defence of Moscow. On the sixth of December 1941, Marshal Zhukov launched the first of the Russian counter attacks. The combination of the cold winter, the Siberian Front, the Soviet Union’s awesome production capabilities, and the resilient nature of Russian soldiers pushed Germany out of the motherland. The chief of the Wehrmacht’s Army Group Centre summed it up in three points on the 7th of December:
1. The setting in of the autumn mud season…
2. The failure of the railways…
3. The underestimation of the enemy’s resistance and of his reserves of men and material…

1. Fugate, B.I. (1984), Operation Barbarossa: Strategy and Tactics on the Eastern Front, 1941, (Presidio Press, California), p. 61

2. Overy, R.J. (1987), Origins of the Second World War, (Longman, London), p. 80

3. Johnson, P. (1983), A History of the Modern World, (Weidenfeld Paperbacks, London), p. 375

4. Langsam, W.C. (1958), Historic Documents of World War Two, (Van Nostrand, Princetown, New Jersey), pp. 76-77 5. Langsam, W.C. pp. 56-61

6. Bullock, A. (1991), Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, (HarperCollins, Glasgow), p. 769

7. The Age, 10 May 1989.

8. Calvocoressi, P. Pritchard, J. & Wint, G. (1972), Total War, (Penguin, London), p. 186

9. Hitler, A. (1925), Mein Kampf (Horst and Blackett, New York), p. 654

10. Bullock, A. p. 768

11. The World At War, Volume 3, Barbarossa – June-December 1941, (1980), (Thames Television, London)

12. Ibid

13. Ibid

14. Overy, R.J. pp. 94-95

15. von Manstein, E. (1958) Lost Victories, (H. Regnery, Chicago), pp. 176-177

16. Hooker, R.D. (Copyright 1999) “’The World Will Hold Its Breath’: Reinterpreting Operation Barbarossa”, (Parameters) Unable to access http://carlisle-www.army.mil/usawe/parameters/99spring/hooker.htm (Reading 10.5.7)

17. Davidson, E. & Manning, D. (1997), Who was Who in the Second World War, (Arms and Armour, London), pp. 184-185

18. Bullock, A. p. 775

19. Knappe, S. (1993), Soldat: Reflections of a German Soldier, 1936-1949, (Dell Publishing, New York), p. 226

20. Ibid

21. Bullock, A. p. 769

22. The World At War

23. Noakes, J. & Pridham, G. (1974), Nazism 1919-1945. Volume 3: Foreign Policy, (Jonathan Cape, London) pp. 600-601