On 22 June 1941, the largest, costliest, and most bitter, brutal and destructive military campaign in recorded history began when four million mostly German troops stepped off along a thousand mile front in their long march to destroy the Red Army.
Most Red Army units were taken completely by surprise. Up until 21 June, Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union were defacto allies. Furthermore, Stalin’s purges had eviscerated the Red Army, and even the limited reforms brought on by Marshal Georgy Zhukov after the near defeat in Finland the year before couldn’t change the fact that the quickest way to get shot or sent to Siberia was showing any capacity for independent thought. The new T-34 and KV-1 tanks, which were far superior to anything the Germans had, were the Soviets’ only tactical advantage, though the lack of any competent supporting leadership or logistics and communications systems rendered them mostly ineffectual.
But what the Soviets lacked tactically was more than compensated for in the long run by the Germans’ flawed strategic thinking. “Blitzkrieg” was an operational concept not a strategy, but Hitler was using it as one. Blitzkrieg finally had its bugs worked out after poor showings (in professional warfighters’ eyes at least) in Poland, France and the Low Countries, but finally came into its own in the Balkans, even if the still mostly foot bound and horse drawn Wehrmacht was not equipped to properly exploit it. In any case, Blitzkrieg was enemy focused, not terrain focused and its ultimate objective was always the destruction of the enemy army. Hitler believed that a quick campaign to destroy the Red Army would cause the “whole rotten house to crumble down”. He could not have been more wrong.
Hitler underestimated Stalin’s control of the population and willingness to sacrifice it to slow the invasion. The German General Staff estimated that the Red Army had 350 divisions. By August the German Army killed or captured more than 2 million Soviet soldiers and identified more than 600 divisions. The stunning advances and destruction of entire Soviet fronts in July and August turned into the realization in September and October that the Red Army didn’t matter. In the vast wilderness of the Russian hinterlands, only the Communist regime in Moscow mattered. But by then it was too late: the weather turned and the Eastern Front had turned into an apocalyptic battle of attrition.
Upon hearing of Barbarossa, Churchill was asked if he would support Stalin despite him standing for everything Churchill opposed. He replied, “If Hitler invaded Hell, I’d at least make a favorable reference to the Devil”.
The first phase of the Second World War was over; it’s most destructive phase had begun.