On 22 June 1941, over three million German troops invaded the Soviet Union along an 800 mile front. The logistics of the operation were staggering: 625,000 horses, 600,000 vehicles, 10,000 tanks and artillery pieces, and 2,000 aircraft divided among three army groups. Army Group North’s objective was the city of Leningrad. Army Group Center began their advance towards the Soviet capital of Moscow, and Army Group South drove to seize control of Russia’s bread basket, the Ukraine. The German forces had achieved complete surprise.
Although Soviet intelligence had provided Stalin with the precise date of the German attack, Stalin believed it to be a ruse by Hitler. The Soviet leader was certain that Hitler sought to provoke him into attacking the German forces massing along the Soviet border, therefore giving Hitler justification to break the non-aggression pact the two nations had entered into together in 1939. For weeks prior, Soviet forces along the western frontier had explicit orders not to engage in any acts that may be interpreted as hostile by the Germans. This costly blunder resulted in the loss of half a million Russian lives in the first two weeks of the invasion alone. The Red Army was decimated; of the 170 Soviet divisions stationed on the western frontier, 28 had been completely destroyed and another 70 had been rendered combat ineffective, in addition to the capture of hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops, weapons and war material. The Luftwaffe achieved air superiority in all three sectors of the front. The first three days of the invasion saw the destruction of nearly 4,000 Soviet aircraft. Within six weeks the German juggernaut had advanced halfway to Moscow.
With the Soviet leadership in a panic, a three-fold plan was prepared to relocate vital industrial, agricultural and manpower assets to the Ural Mountains, well out of range of German air attack. Factories that lay in the path of the German advance were disassembled and loaded onto trains and shipped east. Farmers began herding their livestock east, and the civilian population began evacuating.
In October the rainy season began, turning roads into rivers of mud that slowed the average distance of the German advance from twenty miles per day to four. But by 19 October, Army Group Center was close enough to Moscow for the Soviet leadership to declare it under siege. The citizens of Moscow were pressed into service to construct anti-tank defenses around their city. In November the ground froze over, giving the German vehicles and armor greater mobility but causing suffering among the German troops, who were ill-equipped for winter due to Hitler’s insistence that Moscow would be in German hands before its onset. By December, German forces reached the limit of their advance, twelve miles from the Kremlin. The brutal winter had already begun taking its toll. More Germans were dying from the cold than Russian artillery. The Russians launched a successful counter-attack to drive the Germans from the suburbs of Moscow. The Germans were now fighting two enemies: the harsh Russian winter and fresh, well-equipped Soviet troops from Siberia. German artillery and vehicles failed under the arctic conditions and were discarded by their owners, only to be lubricated with the proper oil and put back into service against them by the Siberian troops.
The Soviet counter-attack may have halted the German offensive, but the Germans still occupied vast amounts of Soviet territory. Army Group North had encircled the city of Leningrad, trapping three million citizens. In the south, the Ukrainian capital of Kiev lay in German hands. The Russian people now began the arduous task of driving the Germans from their homeland.