Frederick Barbarossa (Red Beard) was a charismatic King of Germany who united the German Nation in the 12th century. Legend says that Frederick is still asleep in his mountain retreat (like King Arthur, Merlin, Ogier the Dane etc) and awaits the end of days when he will rise again and restore Germany to its ancient glory (or lead the fight of Christendom against the AntiChrist, depending upon which legend you believe). Thus it was appropriate that when Hitler decided to create an eastern front by attacking the mighty Soviet Empire, he decided to name it after the legendary savior of the German empire.
Hitler in his Mein Kampf talks about Lebensraum or “Living Space”. He believed that the Aryan race needed extra space for growth and that this space can be found in the East at the expense of the Slavic people. Due to this ideology posited by Hitler, the western allies had a belief that all the Hitlers rhetoric prior to the World War were directed against USSR and that in case of opening of hostility they can count on Stalin providing the eastern front. These calculations were dashed when on the morning of the fateful day of 24th August, 1939 Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German Foreign Minister Joachim Ribbentrop signed what came to be known as the Molotov Ribbentrop pact. The treaty in addition to all the secret protocols on dividing up the then independent countries of eastern Europe into the Russian and German sphere of influence also established a pact of nonaggression between the two countries. Thus when Poland, France, Netherlands, Denmark etc had to bear the brunt of the Nazi Blitzkreig, there was no eastern front to relieve the pressure.
Joseph Stalin, the supreme leader of USSR was a paranoid leader. This paranoia resulted in him carrying out the Great Purge, in which most of the senior officers of the Red Army including the popular Marshal of the Soviet Union Mikhail Tukhachevsky, whose strategy of Deep Operation was later used with great effect in the Battle of Stalingrad. Purging of the military leadership (30,000 officers were either killed or deported to Siberia) led to the militray being deficient in strategic and tactical capabilities. In the end it is not just the numbers that win the war. It is also the men and the thought that goes behind it.
Operation Barbarossa had the objective of capaturing Leningrad, Moscow and the oil rich regions of Baku in southern Russia and the food basket of Ukraine.
- Army Group North (Leeb): Moving Northwards and capturing Leningrad.
- Army group Center (Bock): Drive through Smolensk, ending with capturing Moscow.
- Army Group South (Von Rundstedt): Ukraine, Kiev, ending in the oil rich Caucasus.
Army Group Center included Heinz Guderian‘s 2nd Panzer Group. Guderian is famed as the father of Blitzkrieg. Guderian was among the few military leaders (Ernst Volckheim being another German Colonel) who realised the potential of armored concentration in punching through enemy defenses. Mikhail Tukhachevsky was another such military officer. But his getting executed during the Stalin’s Great Purge made it sure that it was the Germans who had the advantage when it came to tactics.
On the Soviet side, the Army was organized into military districts, which were later transformed into Fronts as the hostilities commenced. At the start of the operation, Germans had slight superiority in numbers (1:1.3) while the Soviets had almost 3.8:1 superiority in tanks and 2.6:1 in aircraft. To give a perspective, the total number of troops committed were 75,96,651 (German 4,306,800, Soviet 3,289,851) compared to Indian active troops currently of 1,4i4,000, Tanks 19858 (German – 4,171, Soviet – 15,687, Indian Army – ~5000), Artillery pieces 102,388(Germany – 42,601, Soviet – 59,787, Indian Army – 3,200 missiles are not included), Aircrafts 15,926(German – 4,389, Soviet – 11,537, Indian Air Force – 1,306).
The Operation started on the early morning of 22nd June 1941,. On the very first day of operation, Luftwaffe destroyed over 2000 aircrafts of the Soviet Air Force losing just 35 of their own! By the end of the third day around 4000 Soviet aircrafts were destroyed with Luftwaffe gaining complete air superiority.