Like many students of military history, I have long believed that the two most disastrous decisions made by Adolph Hitler and his Nazi regime were the initiation of “Operation Barbarossa” – the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 -- and the declaration of war against the United States on December 8, 1941. Both actions were politically unnecessary or at least poorly timed; but that is another story. At first the Wehrmacht’s blitzkrieg (lightning war) tactics and the absence of any real resistance on the part of the surprised and poorly-prepared Soviets, still reeling from Stalin’s destructive “officer purges” of the 1930s, seemed to pave the way for the same kind of Nazi victories which saw the conquest of France, Belgium Poland and much of western Europe already.
To begin with the jump off was too late in the year to beat the advent of a Siberian winter, and it was an ill-advised plan that divided efforts and resources between two objectives – Moscow and Stalingrad. But the biggest error of all was the lack of appreciation for the “tyranny of distance” and what history should have taught the invaders about “imperial over-reach” and the difficulty of occupying huge amounts of space. As if that wasn’t already a “bridge too far”, but obsessed with the vitriol of race hatred, the invading forces needlessly slaughtered and wreaked havoc upon the peasant populations as they went, assuring enmity on the part of an already-oppressed people who might otherwise even have welcomed the Germans as “liberators”.
Meanwhile, the Western Allies had won the battle of the Atlantic freeing up the shipment of American goods, whittled down the strength of the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain and the skies over Europe, dispatched thousand-plane raids with tens of thousands of tons of bombs over the Reich at home, invaded Africa and Italy, reclaimed control of the Mediterranean world, and driven the enemy from Egypt. (Not to mention the fact that the U.S. had simultaneously brought the war in the Pacific to Japan’s very doorstep!)
With the war turning against Germany elsewhere, Stalin had found two Generals he trusted in Georgy Zhukov and Aleksandr Vasilevsky and was ready to launch Operation Bagration. Always conscious of patriotic history Stalin chose a hero of the Napoleonic war – Piotor Bagration – a fellow Georgian as inspiration for what was to become the greatest battle of World War II; probably the most
titanic battle in world history.
Significantly on June 22, 1944, the third anniversary of the German invasion, five Soviet Armies, totaling 1.7 million well-trained and disciplined troops (with millions more waiting) supported by 24,000 artillery pieces, 4,000 tanks (mostly redesigned and much-improved T-34/85s) and more than 6,300 military aircraft, (including the powerful Stormavik tank-killers) exploded through the battle line and into Hitler’s Army Group Center at a time when the Wehrmacht defended a battle line an astounding 1800 miles long!
This was not the same ill-equipped, poorly-led army of plodding field workers the front line Wehrmacht soldiers remembered from past encounters, but a sophisticated organization with railway and bridging teams, river-crossing specialists, minefield battalions and Pak (bazooka) units full of a new-found patriotic ardor. What’s more those “slow-witted ignorant sub-human” peasants who survived that earlier abuse were now waiting in their well-armed and highly-motivated partisan cells across those vast distances to the German border and beyond. To make matters much worse the three German Army Groups and their commanders were under Hitler’s “obey or die” personal orders to stand fast and give up no ground. Unable therefore to maneuver, they were sitting ducks for the Soviet encircling tactics which killed or captured entire Divisions in pincer actions. The much faster T-34s were able to encircle the legendary Tigers and Panthers in the same manner. In some local actions the Wehrmacht were outnumbered ten to one as a result of those hamstringing orders. One German commander suffered a nervous breakdown in the field, while another committed suicide.
The sloping sides of the Russian T-34-85 WWII tank helped deflect incoming anti-tank rounds.
With 800,000 German troops in the field and reinforcements committed during the sixty-day battle it can be seen that at least three million participants may have been involved in this monumental struggle at the same time the Western Allies were watching a far smaller number of Americans, fighting their way off of Normandy’s beaches and across the sands of Saipan. Operation Bagration cost Germany 670,000 in total casualties while the Soviets counted 765,000 of their own killed wounded and captured.
Interestingly a parochial America then and now has paid little historical attention to WWII’s eastern front where 85% of Germany’s total war losses occurred and where more than any other place Hitler’s dreams of a thousand-year Reich died along with so many of his country’s youth.