June 1941. War had already been raging in Europe for nearly 2 years. From Norway in the north to France in the west and through to Poland in the east, most of the European continent had fallen under the German jackboot. The UK had survived the worst of the Battle of Britain but was too weak to be any sort of threat to Hitler on mainland Europe. On the eastern borders of the Third Reich lay the Baltic States and the huge expanse of Russia.
1941 had brought German attention onto the Mediterranean front with Italy attempting a land grab in North Africa and Greece but through a mixture of their own incompetence and spirited British response the Italians were making a hash of things. Hitler sent a relatively small but well equipped and well led expeditionary force to bail his erstwhile Allies out of trouble, this force and its first commander would eventually come to be one of the most recognisable names in World War 2. Named Deutsches Afrikakorps it initially comprised just 1 division, the 5th Light. The DAK's commander was a newly promoted Generalleutnant named Erwin Rommel.
By May 1941, the Germans had reversed the gains of the British led Commonwealth forces, taking Yugoslavia and Greece and making plans to take Egypt and with it, control of the Suez Canal itself. However events were in motion to eclipse everything that the Third Reich had accomplished so far.
On 22 June 1941, at around 0300hrs local time, (to date still) the largest invasion force in history, comprising nearly 3,300,000 German troops, along with half a million troops from minor Axis powers like Romania, Finland and Hungary stepped off the line and crossed the border into Soviet-occupied Poland. Hitler had opened a new front in his war against Europe.
Operation Barbarossa would go on to be the largest military operation in history. The initial numbers on either side were already staggering.
Germany Soviet Union
3,800,000 men 2,900,000 men
3,350 tanks 11,000 tanks
2,770 aircraft 9,000 aircraft
On paper the Soviet Union looked able to put up a fight but the officer corps had been thoroughly gutted by Stalin's Great Purge of the late 1930s and the men and material were of indifferent quality for the most part. This would result in the Soviet army being outfought and outclassed in the initial stages of the campaign, losing great numbers of men and material as they were pushed back, flanked and encircled. Key cities like Minsk, Smolensk and Kiev would fall in the coming months, each time the Germans would bag upwards of 300,000 Soviet troops caught in giant encirclements.
It was not all smooth sailing though, the Germans never managed to capture the port of Murmansk in the far north, it would be there after running the gauntlet of commerce raiders, long range bombers and U-Boats that the Allied reinforcement convoys bearing their cargoes of Lend Lease material would unload. Neither would Leningrad fall but it would pay heavily, under siege for nearly two and a half years.
Still, it was a near run thing. The Wehrmacht, fighting both the rasputitsa, where roads were turned into mud by the autumn rains and at the tail end of an ever lengthening supply line would come within sight of the spires of the Krelim just in time to be halted by a lack of supplies and lack of general preparedness for winter, stalling and being beaten back by a counteroffensive led by Soviet divisions literally marching through the streets of Moscow on the way to the front. Thus would come to pass the first of the great punch and counter punches that would come to characterize the Eastern Front.
German troops on the move in the early stages of Barbarossa. The tank is a Panzerkampfwagen I or Pzkfw I or Panzer I for short. Panzerkampfwagen is German for armored combat verhicle. The Panzer I was armed with twin 7.92mm machine guns and like it's slightly more dangerous brethren the Panzer II was the mainstay of the German Panzer Divisions well into 1941. The early panzers were actually more flimsy than their Allied and Soviet counterparts but it was the doctrine which governed their use which gave the Wehrmacht the edge over their opponents. The horses pictured behind the tank and the men walking are indicative of the way the bulk of the German Army moved around. The stereotypical image of the dash and panache of the panzer divisions was more the exception than the norm, right up to the end of WW2.
War of Extermination
But more insidiously the war that Hitler had unleashed on the Soviet Union was one of extermination. Nazi racial policy looked on the peoples of the east, the Slavs, the Roma and the Jews as untermensch, subhuman, unworthy of living. What began with the systematic murder of Polish intelligensia and Jews in German occupied Poland continued with the invasion of the Soviet Union. This was seen in the way Soviet prisoners of war were treated, little to nothing was done to ensure their continued survival once they had been captured by the Germans with many being worked or starved to death. It has been estimated that approximately 4,000,000 Soviet POWs would fall into the hands of the Germans in the course of World War 2. They had a 1 in 2 chance of being alive at the end of the war, this is in stark contrast to the figure of 3.5% for British and American POWs.
Einsatzgruppen, staffed by the SS, a paramilitary organization of the Nazi Party, would fan out in the wake of the advancing forces and round up any Jews or undesirables they found and execute them, it is estimated that between 1941 to 1945 approximately 2,000,000 people, of which 1,300,000 were Jews, were executed by these death squads.
This dramatic photograph shows executions of Jews by Einsatzgruppen near Ivangorod, Ukraine. The photo was mailed from the Eastern Front to Germany and intercepted at a Warsaw post office by a member of the Polish resistance collecting documentation on Nazi war crimes. The original German inscription on the back of the photograph reads, "Ukraine 1942, Jewish Action [operation], Ivangorod."
It was also from Nazi racial policy that places with names like Belzac, Treblinka and Auschwitz-Berkenau were selected for camp sites to implement Endlösung der Judenfrage, The Final Solution to the Jewish Question.
Extermination camps were different from the more numerous concentration and labour camps, the latter were built to house large numbers of undesirables or deviants as classified by the Nazi authorities. These camps were found in Germany as well as in territory occupied by Germany. Their occupants included but were not limited to communists, socialists, gypsies and homosexuals. The camps occupants were systematically mistreated, starved and worked to death but any deaths were incidental to the primary purpose of detention.
On the other hand, the extermination camps, all sited outside Germany's borders, mostly in Poland and the Baltic States, were built with only one purpose in mind.
Much has been written and continues to be written about the most critical theatre of World War 2. While the American and British led campaign against the Germans in Africa, the Mediterranean and Western Europe still hogs most of the limelight the contributions of the Soviet Union and its people in tying down the majority of the German armed forces in World War 2 cannot be discounted or ignored. By simply not surrendering Stalin mercilessly used the mountains of men he had at his disposal to throw at the Germans every opportunity he got, at first to hold the line and then as numbers of men and material built up, to begin the slow inexorable grinding towards Berlin itself. If the Soviet Union had collapsed it is conceivable that Germany would have secured on iron grip on the European continent that would have lasted decades.
But while the military history of the Eastern Front could fill volumes, effort must also be made to remember what happened behind the front lines for both share equal importance in the history of World War 2.
Collection of spectacles left behind by people brought to Auschwitz for extermination.
Photo creidt: Pawal Ulatowski/Reuters