1941. It was a nightmare year for Russia. The Wehrmacht went smashing through the country till it reached the gates of Moscow. Hitler and his generals were exultant. They thought the Soviet Union was about to fall. But it was not to be. The Battle of Moscow changed all that. But that is another story.
Below are some images of the series of disasters for Russia in 1941....
Instead often days of initial probing attacks, followed by the clash of the two fully mobilized armies, the entire German force swept forward in the first hours much as German leaders had expected, to all appearances a model of purposeful efficiency pitted against Soviet primitivism.
Panicky transmissions from Soviet front-line units to their command headquarters were picked up like this one:
"We are being fired upon. What shall we do?"
The answer was just as confusing:
"You must be insane. And why is your signal not in code?"
Soviet forces were capable of a great deal more than their enemies and allies supposed. They were the victims not of Bolshevik primitivism but of surprise. So insistent had Stalin been that Germany would not attack in the summer that even the most rudimentary precautions were lacking.
Stalin returned to the Kremlin on July 1. Two days later he broadcast to the nation for the first time since the onset of the war. It was one of the most important speeches of his life. The delivery was hesitant, interrupted by occasional gulps, as if the speaker were sipping from a glass of water; Stalin had never been a good public speaker. The message was, nevertheless, clear enough.
Luftwaffe reconnaissance units worked frantically to plot troop concentration, supply dumps, and airfields, and mark them for destruction. The Luftwaffe's task was to neutralize the Soviet Air Force. This was not achieved in the first days of operations, despite the Soviets having concentrated aircraft in huge groups on the permanent airfields rather than dispersing them on field landing strips, making them ideal targets. The Luftwaffe claimed to have destroyed 1,489 aircraft on the first day of operations. Hermann Göring—Chief of the Luftwaffe—distrusted the reports and ordered the figure checked. Picking through the wreckages of Soviet airfields, the Luftwaffe's figures proved conservative, as over 2,000 destroyed Soviet aircraft were found.The Luftwaffe lost 35 aircraft on the first day of combat. The Germans claimed to have destroyed only 3,100 Soviet aircraft in the first three days. In fact Soviet losses were far higher; according to Russian historian Viktor Kulikov, some 3,922 Soviet aircraft had been lost. The Luftwaffe had achieved air superiority over all three sectors of the front, and would maintain it until the close of the year.
fleet. Army Group Centre got a half share of the German armoured divisions, two Panzer groups out of four. It was to launch a vast encircling movement towards Minsk, with the ultimate axis of attack towards Moscow. The northern Army Group was pointed at Leningrad; the southern armies were to converge on the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. Germany’s mobile and armoured divisions spearheaded the attack, though most of the army moved by foot or horse. The aim was to secure through surprise and speed the main axes of attack with the mobile units. The rest of the army would follow through, cleaning up pockets of resistance and strengthening the German front line.
“Comrades, citizens, brothers and sisters, men of our Army and Navy! I speak to you my friends! A serious threat hangs over our country. It can only be dispersed by the combined efforts of the military and industrial might of the nation. There is no room for the timid or the coward, for deserters or spreaders of panic, and a merciless struggle must be waged against such people. We must destroy spies, agents provocateurs, and enemy parachutists…anyone who hinders our defence must be shot…The enemy must not find a single railway-engine, not a wagon, not a pound of bread nor a glass of petrol. All the farms must hand their herd to the official bodies and be sent to the rear (of the USSR). Everything else…must be destroyed.” Stalin, in a radio address, July 3 1941
When the German armed forces sprang forward on June 22 they met only slight resistance. Border guards in many cases fought bravely, sometimes literally to the last round and the last man. The great fortress at Brest‐Litovsk, right on the frontier, succeeded in holding out until July 12, its defenders fighting to a standstill. German paratroopers trained for special operations infiltrated behind Soviet lines, cutting communications, seizing bridges and adding to the general confusion. Some Soviet commands could establish contact neither with headquarters nor with the units they were supposed to be controlling. Sheer ignorance about the current military situation was a major factor explaining the disorganized Soviet response. The widespread destruction of Soviet air power made air reconnaissance nearly impossible and meant that forward troops got no respite from the continuous German air bombardment. The Red Army deployed nine mechanized corps in the first two days of the battle, but problems in supplying fuel and ammunition rendered Soviet tank warfare ineffective. Some 90 per cent of the army’s tank strength was lost in the first weeks of the war.
By June 26 Army Group North had crossed Lithuania, and was deep into Latvia. After pausing for the infantry to catch up, the armoured formations rushed forward to reach the Luga River, only sixty miles from Leningrad. Army Group Centre under Field Marshal Fedor von Bock drove in two massive pincers towards Minsk. Pavlov’s attempt to counter‐attack was swept aside, with high casualties. By June 29 German armies had reached Minsk. In their net they caught over 400,000 Soviet soldiers, in this first of the great battles of encirclement. The Panzer corps simply repeated the manoeuvre as they moved
on to Smolensk, the last major city before Moscow, which they took on July 16. Timoshenko was sent to command the Western Front and save Smolensk after Stalin assumed the job of Commissar of Defence. Timoshenko improvised a defence using reserve divisions intended as a strategic counter‐offensive force. The long, extended flanks of the German attacking force were subjected to a series of fierce assaults. Short of ammunition and supplies, with troops weakened from forced marches through the Russian heat, with few tanks and a great many horses, Timoshenko nevertheless succeeded in slowing the German advance and imposing a fearful level of casualties on an army that had conquered all of continental Europe for the loss of 50,000 men. Eighty miles south‐west of Smolensk Zhukov even succeeded in inflicting a local defeat on German forces in the Yelnya salient. On September 6 forces of the Reserve Front retook the battered town in savage fighting but were prevented by the shortage of tanks and vehicles from exploiting their victory.
The actions around Smolensk showed both the strengths and the weaknesses of Soviet forces. Soldiers fought with an extraordinary ferocity and bravery. They inflicted casualties at a high rate and in the early battles often refused to take prisoners. Captured Germans were murdered and mutilated, sometimes ritually ‐ Soviet troops had been told to expect no better from the enemy. It was not Soviet propaganda but the German army chief of staff who observed that ‘Everywhere, the Russians fight to the last man. They capitulate only occasionally.’25 When they ran out of bullets and shells — as was all too often the case in the early stages of the war ‐ they fought with knives or
bayonets. Horsemen charged with sabres drawn. Soviet forces soon came to believe that German soldiers disliked fighting away from the support of aircraft and tanks. ‘Bayonet charges,’ wrote General Rokossovsky, whose forces stood astride the road from Smolensk to Moscow, ‘are dreaded by the Germans and they always avoid them. When they counter‐attack they shoot without aiming.’
Soviet soldiers were also adept at concealment. Hiding in trees and undergrowth, in grassland or in swamp, infantrymen could maintain a chilling silence while the enemy marched past them entirely oblivious to their presence. German patrols took to placing non‐smokers in front because they were more likely to be able to smell the tell‐tale scent of the enemy ‐ the coarse tobacco, sweat, even cheap perfume, swabbed on to keep away lice. The ability to blend into the landscape, summer or winter, was exploited by the Red Army to the full in the later years of war.
The savage fighting held up but could not halt the German armies. Soviet forces lacked basic military equipment. The standard rifle dated from Tsarist days and was not generally replaced by automatic weapons until 1944. Radio communications were rudimentary and radios in short supply. Radar was not generally available. Tanks, even the most modern T‐34 and KV‐1 tanks, were short of supplies and fuel and were attacked repeatedly by German aircraft, which had local air superiority. Though brave, Red Army soldiers were tactically inept, often absurdly so. Officers were trained to undertake only frontal assaults, even across open terrain.
A German account of Soviet counter‐attacks on a German strong point on the approach to Kiev exemplifies both Soviet persistence and Soviet ineptitude. The attack began with an artillery barrage that fell behind the German emplacement, causing no damage. Then from a thousand yards distant, a hundred yards or so separating each line, wave after wave of infantrymen rose up out of the grass and with bayonets fixed tramped towards the German lines. The first line was mowed down almost to a man by machine‐gun fire; the second was hit but was able to reform. Then the men ran towards the German guns, shouting in unison. They moved more slowly when they reached the piles of dead, stepping over or between them. Officers on horseback bullied them on and were shot by German snipers. The attack faltered and broke, then was repeated, using the same methods, four more times, each time without success. German machine‐gunners found that their guns became too hot for them to touch. ‘The fury of the attacks,’ the report continued, ‘had exhausted and numbed us completely… a sense of depression settled upon us. What we were now engaged in would be a long, bitter and hard‐fought war.’
The panic was triggered by an unusually frank and grim communique broadcast in Moscow on October 16. ‘During the night of October 14—15,’ ran the report, ‘the position on the Western Front became worse.’ The Germans, with large quantities of tanks, ‘broke through our defences’. The following day the radio announced that Moscow would be defended stubbornly to the death, that no thought had been given to abandoning the capital (which was not, of course, true), but that above all Stalin was still in Moscow. Why he chose to remain we cannot know for certain. But on the 17th, instead of following his Government, he went out to his dacha, which had been mined for demolition, to do some work. He found his guards about to blow up the building. He ordered them to clear the mines and started to work in his study.
In Moscow the NKVD moved in to shoot looters and restore order, while thousands of not entirely enthusiastic volunteers were formed into labour battalions to dig defences or into ramshackle militia to be moved at once to the front. Every tenth apartment building manager was shot as an example. A state of siege was declared on October 19. The city prepared for the showdown. Stalin informed his guards that he was staying put: ‘We will not surrender Moscow.’
Russia's War by Richard Overy