Barbarossa 1941 – USSR Invaded 75th Anniversary Series [Part Three]

July 4, 2016 by crew

Thanks for joining us again, Beasts of War, as we continue our commemorative wargaming explorations of Operation Barbarossa. Launched on June 22nd, 1941, this was the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union, and the start of the bloodiest (and most important) theatre of World War II.

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So far, we’ve seen the Germans launch the invasion in Part One, followed by some of the first desperate Soviet counterattacks. Part Two saw the colossal tank clash of at the Battle of Dubno and the Germans cross one of the huge rivers that are such an iconic feature of the Eurasian landscape.

But while all this was unfolding in the central and southern regions of Barbarossa, what was going on in the north?

Drive On Leningrad

July 16th, 1941

As mentioned previously, the Axis assault into the Soviet Union was organized into three immense “Army Groups,” North, South, and Centre. Army Group North was the smallest of the three, but still had in excess of 600,000 men, plus three panzer and two motorized divisions, organized into Panzer Group IV.

Army Group North’s immediate mission was to drive through Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia … then the northern heartland of Russia herself. Here they would cut the road and rail links between Moscow and Leningrad (today St. Petersburg), and finally take Leningrad itself.

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As they did elsewhere along the Soviet frontier, the Germans achieved complete surprise and shoved deep into Soviet territory. In the Baltic States, much of the local population hated Stalin and were initially sympathetic to the German “liberators.” But resistance stiffened significantly once the Germans penetrated Russia proper.

One of the first big setbacks came at the town of Soltsy, less than 200 kilometres south of Leningrad. On July 16th, the spearhead of the 8th Panzer Division found itself pinned against the Shelon River by a Soviet counterattack and nearly sliced off from the rest of the LVI Motorized Corps.

One of the great things about this battle are the characters involved. Commanding the LVI Motorized Corps is Erich von Manstein, widely regarded as one of the best operational commanders of World War II. His opponent was Nikolai Vatutin, one of the commanders of the recently-rebuilt Soviet 11th Army.

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Vatutin was one of the better generals the Red Army would produce through the course of World War II. He and Manstein would meet time and time again, most notably commanding the biggest part of the Battle of Kursk in 1943. If Zhukov can be compared with Eisenhower, Vatutin can be compared with Montgomery or Bradley.

By mid-July, Army Group North had driven deep into the pine forests of northern Russia. Pivoting north toward Leningrad, they presented an “outside lane” on their open right flank that would be left dangerously exposed. While trying to protect this exposed flank, Manstein’s corps advanced too far, too fast, and became badly overextended.

In particular, the forward elements of 8th Panzer Division had advanced too far ahead near the town of Soltsy. Seething and vengeful after horrific defeats, the Soviets hit the 8th Panzer with elements of the 70th Infantry and 21st Tank Divisions, trapping 8th Panzer against the Shelon River and hitting them from three sides.

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For two days, most of the 8th Panzer fought for its life. They’d advanced out of range of their own artillery regiment and were utterly on their own. Manstein sent in the 3rd Motorized Division to rescue 8th Panzer, but soon they were beaten up almost as bad. At one point Manstein had to air-drop supplies to his panzers.

This was a fight 8th Panzer very nearly lost … and paid a dear, dear price to “win” (survive might be a better word). Meanwhile, they’d taken so much damage that LVI Corps would be unable to help the rest of Army Group North drive on Leningrad. Nikolai Vatutin had come within a whisker of winning a startling divisional-sized victory.

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This was far from the last time Manstein and Vatutin would meet. Voronezh, Stalingrad, Kursk, and the Cherkassy Pocket … time and again these two would lock horns. But while Manstein would enjoy a post-war reputation as one of the finest commanders in World War II, Vatutin would be tragically killed by Ukrainian separatists in early 1944.

Storm in the North

August 22th, 1941

One thing about Barbarossa should always be remembered: how many willing allies Germany had. Barbarossa included forces from Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Slovakia, Croatia, Norway, France, Belgium, Spain, Austria, and Denmark. Even the Ukraine and yes . . . 600,000 soldiers from Russia herself . . . would eventually participate.

Another nation that participated in Barbarossa was Finland. Finnish participation was never wholehearted, however, and pursued to secure specific Finnish national interests rather than the ideological goose-stepping of Berlin. Besides, unlike Germany’s other allies, the Finns had a legitimate beef with the Soviet Union.

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As many of you know, the Soviets invaded Finland in November, 1939. Despite a massive advantage in numbers, the Soviets were resolutely checked by the Finns in a brilliant winter campaign. Eventually the Finns were overcome, however, as the Soviets threw in still more forces. The Finns were forced to cede deep sections of territory in 1940.

It was this territory the Finns wanted back when they agreed to participate in Barbarossa in 1941. Not trusting the Germans entirely, the Finns didn’t invade on June 22th. They waited until the spearheads of Army Group North drew close to Leningrad before finally opening their own offensive on July 31st, a full six weeks after Barbarossa started.

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The Finns called this the “Continuation War” to stress its connection to Russia’s original invasion nineteen months previously. They certainly weren’t looking to further Berlin’s plans for “lebensraum” in the East. Accordingly, the Finns largely stopped their advance and dug in when they reached the old 1939 frontiers, well short of Leningrad.

Still, the Soviet-Finnish front saw ferocious fighting in the late summer of 1941, especially in the Karelian Isthmus between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga. Here, the Finnish IV Corps advanced along the Gulf of Finland toward Vyborg (Viipuri), with the I and II Corps advancing along Lake Ladoga toward Käkisalmi.

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Of course, Finland’s part in World War II was far from over. Cooperating with the German XXXVI Corps in the far north, they pushed into the Soviet Union, where the lines stabilized for almost three years. Finally, the Soviets hit back hard in the summer of 1944, and despite ferocious resistance, the Finns were again driven back.

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Finally, Finland was forced to sue for a separate peace and again hand over all territories lost in the 1939-40 Winter War. In the end, the Finns wound up fighting AGAINST the Germans in the so-called Lapland War of 1944-45, when German divisions in the far north of Finland refused to withdraw into occupied Norway.

Battle for Kiev

August – September, 1941

Despite the incredible successes of June and July, by the middle of August the German High Command was starting to realize they’d underestimated the task before them. Yes, they were still driving into the Russian hinterland. Yes, they were still smashing huge Soviet armies. Yes, they were still winning. No, it still wasn’t enough.

The Soviet Union was just too big. No matter how deep the Germans pushed, there was always another river, another endless stretch of steppe. Diaries show how the sheer size of the country depressed German soldiers, as if they’d invaded another planet. The country was a void that swallowed the German army whole.

The gigantic scale of the campaign area allowed the Soviets to trade space for time … time to raise new armies. But by now Red Army losses had grown horrific even by Soviet standards. About three MILLION men had already been lost, mostly in gigantic “battles of encirclement.” The Soviets were running out of men, space, and time.

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These battles of encirclement were something of a peculiar feature to the Eastern Front, partly because of the huge armies and wide-open steppe across which these manoeuvres were undertaken. Originally, the Germans employed encirclement to try and destroy the Red Army in place, before it could withdraw into the vast Soviet backcountry.

But the doctrine had flaws. For one, the infantry could never keep up with the panzers or motorized grenadiers. Second, there just weren’t enough infantry to “digest” these huge Soviet forces the panzers had “bitten off.” Many Soviets escaped the pockets or joined the partisans by the tens of thousands.

Hitler himself would soon intervene, insisting that more of these gigantic pockets had to be cut off, sealed, and annihilated. The biggest one would be at Kiev, where the remnants of the South-Western Front under General Kirponos (who’d launched the Battle of Dubno in Part Two) defiantly resisted in the capital of the Ukraine.

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In the German centre, Guderian’s Panzer Group II had just sealed off another pocket with Hoth’s Panzer Group III at Smolensk. The road to Moscow was now more or less open. Fearful of his flanks and rear, however, Hitler ordered Guderian to abandon the drive on Moscow, and head south to help seal off the Soviets at Kiev.

Guderian was appalled, but his vociferous protests were overruled. Many consider this pivot on Kiev to be the single biggest operational-scale blunder of World War II. Granted, Guderian’s panzers linked up with those of Kleist’s Panzer Group I to seal off the Kiev Pocket, winning a momentous battle … but had they thrown away a war?

How big was the Kiev Pocket? The Soviets lost 650,000 troops, more than the US and Britain in all of World War II … combined. Kirponos himself was among the dead. Hitler called it the “greatest battle in history,” and if you judge by the number of casualties, Kiev really WAS the largest victory any army has ever won. Anywhere. Ever.

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September was nearly over by the time Guderian’s panzers had redeployed back to the Moscow road. By then, the “rasputitsa” fall rains had drowned the countryside in an ocean of mud and the panzers were going nowhere. Kiev had been lost. But Moscow, and perhaps all of Russia … and perhaps all of World War II … had been saved.

Join us next week as Barbarossa finally runs out of steam. Not that the Germans are giving up, soon enough they will launch “Operation Typhoon,” their do-or-die push to finally destroy the Red Army and take Moscow. Just how close are the Germans going to come to absolute victory …

… and when will the Soviets finally strike back?

By James Johnson

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"One of the great things about this battle are the characters involved. Commanding the LVI Motorized Corps is Erich von Manstein [...] His opponent was Nikolai Vatutin, one of the commanders of the recently-rebuilt Soviet 11th Army..."

"About three MILLION men had already been lost, mostly in gigantic “battles of encirclement.” The Soviets were running out of men, space, and time..."