If there was one thing at which Germany’s well-trained and disciplined Wehrmacht excelled, it was Blitzkrieg (lightning war). This was modern warfare at its most shock-and-awesome, involving air supremacy and the rapid advance of powerful tank columns supported by mechanized infantry. And it was Blitzkrieg that Hitler relied on when he ripped up his pact with Stalin. It had suited the two dictators to carve up Eastern Europe between them in 1939, but uneasy peace between two diametrically opposed ideologies was never going to last.
German forces invaded Soviet territory in June 1941 in a pre-emptive strike codenamed Operation Barbarossa. The prolonged conflict that followed would become the largest military offensive and most lethal battle in world history. Despite occupying huge swathes of the Soviet Union, including key economic areas like oil-producing Ukraine, Operation Barbarossa would prove disastrous. German troops got to within just 16 km (10 mi) of Moscow in December 1941 before revitalized defenders – aided by the onset of harsh winter – held them off in the desperate Battle of Moscow. It was the turning point.
As with Napoleon before him, Hitler’s ambition to slay the Russian Bear had been thwarted by the iron hand of winter. From the Christmas of 1941, the Wehrmacht would be driven back inexorably in a long and bloody fight that included terrible episodes like failure of the prolonged siege of Leningrad and catastrophic defeat in the battle of Stalingrad. Along the way, millions of lives would be lost on both sides. The final drama was eventually played out when rampaging Russian troops entered Berlin in April 1945. If the self-delusional Adolf Hitler still refused to accept that his decision to mount Operation Barbarossa had led directly to Germany’s defeat in World War II, he must surely have known it then.
When: From June 22 1941
Where: Western Soviet Union
Death toll: Uncountable. War on the Eastern Front is estimated to have cost Soviet forces 7,000,000 casualties, while Axis powers lost 4,200,000 troops. Civilian deaths are thought to have reached 20,000,000.
You should know: Stalin can have been under no illusion about Adolf Hitler’s intentions. Hitler’s views on the Soviet Union were made clear in Mein Kampf (My Struggle), published in 1925, wherein the future Fuhrer promised to invade vast lands to the east to provide the Aryan German master race with Lebensraum (living space), simultaneously subjugating ‘lesser’ Slav peoples.