June 20, 2016 by crew
June 22th, 2016 marks the 75th anniversary of one of the largest military assaults ever undertaken in the history of man. This was Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany on June 22, 1941. This article series will make a feeble attempt to put a commemorative wargaming perspective on this gigantic clash.
In all, three million Germans and one million Axis allies hit six million Soviet soldiers in an offensive that started the largest … and worst … war there has simply ever been.
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If Germany was ever to truly win World War II, it would have to be here. As it turned out, this invasion would be the biggest single factor leading to the fall of the Third Reich.
The war in the Soviet Union would last almost four horrific years, probably the worst 1,417 days in human existence. Barbarossa, however, was only the first Axis push, lasting about three months. Then came Operation Typhoon, their final shove toward Moscow, followed by the first successful Soviet counterattacks against the invaders.
Together, these three initial phases lasted from June to December 1941, the six-month earthquake we’ll attempt to cover in this series. We’ll see Nazi Germany make (by far) her most titanic effort of conquest, while the Soviets suffer the most dire defeats in history. Yet somehow they survive, and thus ultimately decide World War II.
I’ll use two game systems to try and bring some of the most epic moments of this campaign to tabletop. First, we’ll recreate tactical engagements through Ironfist Publishing’s “Battlegroup” game system, specifically the Battlegroup: Barbarossa campaign supplement. I’ve recently published an article series on this system, which can be found HERE.
Secondly, I’ll use an updated edition of Avalon Hill’s classic “PanzerBlitz” system for some larger-scale “command tactical” games. The Eastern Front never did anything small, after all. Published in 1971, PanzerBlitz focused on the Eastern Front, and was one of the first systems to bring modular, tactical wargaming to the general public.
From its very outset, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union would be a different kind of war. Yes, previous invasions had been swift and brutal. But Hitler’s plan was not to merely “conquer” the Soviets. They were to be annihilated, erased from the new industrial and agricultural heartland of an imagined Germanic Empire.
Standing against this assault by one of history’s most brutal dictatorships, we have ANOTHER of history’s most brutal dictatorships, Stalin’s Soviet Union. When the two most barbaric and powerful regimes on earth collide in a continent-scorching fight to the death, we get … quite simply … the most ferocious war humanity has ever seen.
So perhaps a gentle word of warning is in order. Depending on how deep you get into the historical background of your campaigns, when you wargame on the Eastern Front, you are going to a dark, dark place.
For this invasion, the Germans had assembled the most powerful army yet deployed. Three million well-equipped, trained, and confident Wehrmacht and Waffen SS troops were backed up by eighteen panzer divisions and thousands of aircraft. Another million came from allies like Rumania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and even Finland.
The Soviets certainly had a huge force to oppose the invaders. No less than six million men stood ready. The Soviets had more tanks than all other armies on earth … combined (almost 24,000 in all). The Red Air Force was also massive. But of course numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Fearful that his own army could pose a threat to his position, Stalin had recently “purged” his officer corps, killing nearly all his senior commanders and tens of thousands of his field-grade officers. The Red Army in 1941 was a headless, incompetent, flailing giant … one needs only look at their attack on Finland (1939-40) for proof.
The Storm Breaks
At 03:15 on June 22, 1941 – thousands of German artillery pieces opened fire along a 1,080-mile front. Elite “Brandenburger 800” commandos blew up more command points, assisted by German-trained Lithuanian, Belarussian, and Ukrainian nationalists.
By 06:00 the sun was up and the Luftwaffe tore into the Red Air Force, mostly on the ground. Over 1,400 aircraft were destroyed on the first day. The commander of the main Soviet air fleet, Major-General Ivan Kopets, got in his plane to survey the damage on his airfields. When he landed, he calmly got out of his plane … and shot himself.
Meanwhile, NKVD border forces were slaughtered at key crossing points. Bridges were seized or hastily built by German engineers. Grenadiers poured over the border, liquidating resistance and opening vital road junctions. Finally, over 3,000 panzers rumbled off their jump points. Barbarossa was on.
The Soviet response was nothing short of chaos. Repeated warnings, including clear reports from British intelligence, had been ignored by Stalin and his yes-men. Less naive Red Army commanders had seen this coming, and had tried to get at least some preparations in place. Overall, however, the Soviets were caught completely by surprise.
Soviet units, those that got any orders at all, were simply told to counterattack. Such orders were a death sentence under the circumstances, but any commanders who refused were immediately shot. Stalin himself fell into a catatonic nervous breakdown and didn’t emerge from his bedroom for at least three days.
Pruzana, Belarus – June 22, 1941
So let’s start at the beginning, with one of the very first tank engagements of the Eastern Front.
As discussed in the captions above, the central German army group was assigned two complete “panzergruppe.” One of these was Panzergruppe II under the incomparable General “Schnelle Heinz” (Fast Heinz) Guderian. This was a massive force of thirteen divisions (200,000+ men), including three motorized and five panzer divisions.
Leaping across the River Bug, Guderian’s central corps (XII Army Corps) locked horns with the old but formidable Soviet fortifications at Brest-Litovsk. Meanwhile, his three mechanized corps swept around the obstacle to the north and south, and pushed deep into enemy territory.
By the end of the first day, one of Guderian’s panzer divisions (the 18th Panzer, part of XLVII Motorized Corps on the left wing) had pushed 37 miles into what is today Belarus. The sun was just beginning to set when they finally ran into a significant Soviet tank force, the 30th Tank Division (14th Motorized Corps, 4th Army) at the village of Pruzana.
In addition to being one of first major tank actions on the Eastern Front, Pruzana is interesting because of some of the tanks involved. Among these were the “Trauchpanzer III” submersible tanks, initially designed to land on the shores of Sussex and Kent. These didn’t float like DD Shermans, but crawled along the bottom by using snorkels.
The 18th Panzer Division was also attached with Special Battalion 100 attached, equipped with the “Flamingo” flamethrower variant of the PzKpfw II. There was even a detachment of British A-13 cruiser tanks, captured during the Western Blitzkrieg the previous summer.
The Soviets also had large number of flamethrower tanks, namely the OT-133 and OT-26A. Such units were initially attached to many Soviet tank divisions, but their use in combat was mercifully brief. Flamethrowers are very short-ranged weapons, and these vehicles just didn’t have the armour to get that close to potential enemy targets.
Historically, Pruzana was a disaster for the Soviets, a theme we’ll see repeated over and again through the course of Barbarossa. Simply surviving will constitute a victory for the Soviet players, since this is more than the historical counterparts were usually able to do.
Grodno, Belarus – June 24, 1941
The Soviets were stunned by the scale and ferocity of the Axis assault. Technically, Germany and the Soviets were allies due to a nonaggression pact in which they’d divided the territory of conquered Poland two years before. Stalin had since refused to believe Hitler would attack him, and now his army was paying a horrific price for his gullibility.
Utterly unprepared, the Soviets lashed out blindly. Everywhere the order was the same: Attack. Despite German air supremacy, being cut off, having no fuel, no ammunition, no coordination with other units, and having no chance whatsoever against a clearly superior enemy … Attack, attack, attack, or be shot as a defeatist and a traitor.
One of the largest of these doomed counteroffensives was launched by General I. V. Boldin, deputy commander of the Soviet Western Front, on the third day of the war. Despite being cut off, he formed up a huge “shock group” of three corps (100,000 men) and launched a desperate strike against the German forces swiftly surrounding him.
This attack would be aimed at the southern flank of General Hoth’s Panzer Group III, currently bypassing Boldin to the north. In fact, Hoth was advancing so fast he was already passed Boldin’s spearhead, and the Soviet counter-strike instead hit the flank of German follow-up forces, namely the 256th Infantry Division (XX Corps, Ninth Army).
The Soviet counterattack was doomed from the start. One of their units, the 6th Cavalry Corps, saw 70% of its 36th Cavalry Division destroyed by “Stuka” dive-bombers in a single day. Tens of thousands were killed. But finally, the remnants of the 33rd Tank Division (11th Mechanized Corps) managed to find and hit the Germans on June 24.
The fighting was hard, despite the bedraggled state of the Soviet tank force. The German 256th Infantry was hardly one of the “star” panzer divisions, after all. Yet while the Stukas and panzers got all the glory, most of the victories won during Barbarossa were due to the foot-slogging infantry and the steady work of their towed artillery.
Despite German difficulties, however, the outcome was never in doubt. The defences held, and the surviving Soviets were eventually rounded up when they ran out of ammunition and fuel. Political officers and officers were shot out of hand, enlisted men were marched too prison camps from which few than 5% would ever return.
The German advance, meanwhile, continued unbroken, with spearheads soon driving toward Minsk, Kiev, Odessa, and through the Baltic states toward Leningrad. Stalin himself perhaps said it best. During those bleak opening days, he was heard to mutter: “Lenin founded the country, and we’ve ****ed it up.”
Come back next week as we continue our narrative on this gargantuan offensive. Some of the largest tank battles in history are about to unfold in the Ukraine, and the Soviets are about to sustain some of the worst defeats ever recorded … and survive. Add your comments and suggestions, and join the conversation on this epic campaign.
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"We’ll see Nazi Germany make (by far) her most titanic effort of conquest, while the Soviets suffer the most dire defeats in history. Yet somehow they survive, and thus ultimately decide World War II..."
"Utterly unprepared, the Soviets lashed out blindly. Everywhere the order was the same: Attack. [...] Attack, attack, attack, or be shot as a defeatist and a traitor..."