On 22 June 1941, at 0330 hours, mechanised Wehrmacht divisions, supported by Luftwaffe fighter-bombers, poured across the Niemen River into Russia. The date had been carefully chosen for its historical significance. Exactly 129 years before, on 22 June 1812, an apparently invincible Napoleon Bonaparte had also crossed the Niemen to attack Russia. However, Hitler should have studied his history a little more closely; Napoleon was forced to begin his disastrous retreat only six months after invading, eventually losing 95 per cent of his troops to combat and the Russian winter. Although it would take longer, and cost even more lives, a similar fate would befall the German invaders.
Despite its having started late – the original launch date was May – ‘Operation Barbarossa’ initially made fantastic progress, raising expectations of a repeat of the Blitzkrieg against Poland. Hitler’s plan, which he had been formulating since shortly after the signing of the Russo-German Pact, called for 120 German divisions to annihilate Russia within five months, before the onset of the winter. Hitler wasn’t the only one so confident of a German victory. In July, the American General Staff had issued ‘confidential’ memoranda to US journalists that the collapse of the Soviet Union could be expected within weeks.
But Russia, a vast country tremendously rich in natural resources, manpower, and a fierce patriotism, was far from finished. If unprepared for the precise moment of the German attack, the Red Army was neither as small, as ill-equipped, nor as lacking in fighting spirit as the Nazis’ ideology proclaimed it to be. A month and a half into the campaign, on 11 August, the Chief of the German General Staff, Franz Halder, wrote in his diary:
‘It is becoming ever clearer that we underestimated the strength of the Russian colossus not only in the economic and transportation sphere but above all in the military. At the beginning we reckoned with some 200 enemy divisions and we have already identified 360. When a dozen of them are destroyed the Russians throw in another dozen. On this broad expanse our front is too thin. It has no depth. As a result, the repeated enemy attacks often meet with some success.’
Not only had the Germans underestimated the sheer number of forces available to the Red Army, they had also underestimated how well equipped it was. Many of the Wehrmacht’s best generals reported with astonishment and a large amount of fear on the appearance of the Russian T-34 tank, the existence of which German intelligence had not an inkling. So well-constructed and armoured that German anti-tank shells bounced off it, the T-34 instilled in the German soldier what General Blumentritt later called ‘tank terror’. These kinds of intelligence miscalculations would plague the Germans throughout the rest of the war.
But possibly the Germans’ greatest miscalculation was their ideologically driven belief that Slavic soldiers would be no match for the ‘Aryan’ Germans and that the Soviet Union, once attacked, would disintegrate into chaos and revolution. ‘We have only to kick in the door,’ Hitler assured his generals, ‘and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.’ Instead, the German invasion – launching what the Russians still call ‘the Great Patriotic War’ – loosed among the peoples of the Soviet Union a tremendous surge in patriotism, both Soviet patriotism and Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian and other national patriotisms. At this point, nearly a quarter century after the revolution, and just after the terrible purge years of 1934 and 1940, there could have been little naiveté about the nature of the Communist regime. Despite a tremendous amount of resentment and antipathy towards the Communist leaders, the peoples of the Soviet Union remained, for the most part, passionately committed to the sovereignty of the state, as well as to the individual nations of which it was made up. This was a fact which westerners have never properly understood, and the Germans were to pay dearly for their misunderstanding.