The War on The Eastern Front
Sketch History - 22 June 1941 - 31 Dec 1941


Well before June of 1941, Germany had become a true dictatorship, with Adolf Hitler as the head of state, having assumed the title of Führer, and nominally acting as the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. 

In August 1939, Hitler had negotiated an alliance with the Soviet Union, protecting Germany's eastern frontier during the campaign in the west in 1940, and the two nations continued to trade even as late as 22 June 1941, the day that Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

Hitler had announced to his generals his intent to invade the Soviet Union in December 1940 (and in fact had alluded to the necessity of such in Mein Kampf, his political testament he wrote while imprisoned in the 1920s.)   The date of the invasion was set for May 1941, but postponed due to two events involving Germany's ally, Italy.  It became necessary to invade Yugoslavia after Italy's failed attempt at taking Greece, and German troops were also sent to North Africa to bolster the Italian armies locked in combat with the British.

The ultimate strategic goal of the Germans was to subjugate the European portion of the Soviet Union.  The initial attack (by German forces and those of her allies, including Finland, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia) would seek to encircle the bulk of the Red Army in Belarus (in the northwestern portion of the Soviet Union), and capture three key cities - Leningrad (the birthplace of Soviet Communism), Moscow (the seat of power) and Kiev (capital of Ukraine, with its riches of wheat and grain, and also gateway to the oil-rich Caucasus region).  Some property would go back to Germany's allies - Finland would recover Karelia, Romania would annex Besarabia, northern Bukovina and Transistria.  The rest would be divided into four German "provinces".

The eventual goal - shown on the map at right - would be a 3000 mile long line from Archangel in the north to Astrakhan in the south, with all territory marked in green on the map to become ruled by up to 100 million settlers from Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia.  Geographically, the eastern boundary would fall along the Volga River and the Ural Mountains.

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Planned German provinces indicated in red.

The German invasion was scheduled for 15 May 1941, but action in the Balkans - including the conquests of Greece and Yugoslavia - derailed the German timetable.


The German invasion force would organize into three Army Groups (which would later be increased to five), each containing about 1 million men and divided into 3 or 4 Armies, organized and commanded as below.

Typical Army Group Organization - June 1941
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Commander - Generalfeldmarschall

Infantry Army - 200,000 men
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Commander - Generaloberst

3 to 4 armies under command of the Army Group

Infantry Corps - 60,000 men
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Commander - General der Infanterie (etc.)

Armoured Corps
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Commander - General der Infanterie (etc.)

From 2 to 5 Corps per Army, either armoured or infantry

Division - 20,000 men
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Commander - Generalleutnant or Generalmajor

Division - 20,000 men
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Commander - Generalleutnant or Generalmajor

From 2 to 7 Divisions per Corps.
There were several types of Divisions:
Infantry 3 Infantry Regiments
Security 1 Infantry Regiment
Light Infantry 2 Infantry Regiments
Mountain 2 Mountain Regiments
Cavalry 3 mounted Regiments
Armoured Corps were made up of two types of Divisions:
Panzer 1 Armoured and 2 Motorized Rifle Regiments
Motorized Infantry Two Motorized Infantry Regiments
There were several wartime changes to the Divisions.

The only Cavalry division was converted to a Panzer Division in late 1941.

The Motorized Rifle Regiments of Panzer Divisions were redesignated "Panzer Grenadier" in late 1942, as were Motorized Infantry Regiments.   Infantry Regiments were also redesignated "Grenadier" Regiments, but Infantry Divisions retained that designation.

Panzer Groups were similar, but heavy in tank units and were later redesignated Panzer Armies.

The comparative strengths of the two armies were as follows (source: John Ellis, Brute Force)

22 June 1941 Axis Soviet
(not including eastern forces not facing Germans)
Men 3,150,000 Germans
530,000 Allies *
Tanks 3,332 12,000
Artillery 7,184 5,900
Military Aircraft 2,770 10,000

* includes 18 Finnish Divisions, 14 Romanian Divisions, 3 Slovakian Divisions, 1 Hungarian Division, 3 Italian Divisions (as of 7 Aug 1941) and 1 Spanish Division (as of 1 Sep 1941)

(German operation names are in blue, Russian in red).

OPERATION BARBAROSSA (Unternehmen Barbarossa)

Barbarossa (Red Beard) was a nickname for Frederick I, who lived from 1121-1190 and was one of Germany's most famous emperors.   The name was given to the overall invasion of the Soviet Union.

German Objectives:

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Army Group South - with 3 German Armies, a Romanian Army and a Panzer Group - was ordered to take Kiev and the Dnieper River Valley, with the goal of encircling and destroying all Soviet forces between the Pripet Marshes in central Russia, and the Black Sea.

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Army Group Centre - with 2 German Armies and 2 Panzer Groups - was ordered to take the traditional invasion path from Warsaw through Smolensk to Moscow, the two armoured groups to meet on the upper Dnieper, the ultimate objective being the capture of Moscow.

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Army Group North - with 2 German Armies and a Panzer Group - was to advance northeast towards Leningrad, pinning Soviet places in the Baltic regions in place.

Other forces - a Finnish army group was tasked to occupy the Karelian isthmus and Lake Onega front, to threaten Leningrad from the north.  In the Arctic, German forces of the Norway Army were to cut the Murmansk railway.

The campaign was expected to take four months at most.

Soviet Defenses:

Soviet forces were deployed close to the western frontier, in occupied areas such as Poland, Bessarabia, and the Baltics, and divided into Military Districts.  Upon the onset of hostilities, the forces in the Military Districts were grouped into Fronts, the equal of a German Army Group.  Some 3,000,000 troops were mobilized in the west, with 1,000,000 elsewhere in the Soviet Union.

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In the early hours of 22 June 1941, along a 2,000 mile front, and preceded by artillery barrages and small commando actions, the German Army went into action in the Soviet Union.  With complete tactical surprise, the invasion force made spectacular advances and was able to acheive large scale encirclements.  The Red Air Force was by and large destroyed on the ground in the early hours of the invasion and Soviet commanders were restricted in their actions by Stalin, who held out hope that a mistake had been made and did not want to provoke the Germans. 

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The German armies in Army Group North advanced more slowly than in the central and southern regions of the front, due both to errors and difficult terrain.  Leningrad is surrounded on 19 August, beginning the longest siege in military history.  Finnish troops in the arctic also advance swiftly, recovering territory they lost in the Winter War - then refusing to go further.  German troops in the extreme north don't advance at all, and the Murmansk railway remains uncut.

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On June 28, Minsk was captured.  On 3 July, Stalin called  for a scorched earth policy - no buildings, bridges, or resources were to be allowed to fall into enemy hands.  On 10 July, the Dniepr River was crossed, and on the 15th Smolensk was taken.   Large numbers of Soviet soldiers fell into German hands - 290,000 at Minsk, then 100,000 at Smolensk, including 4,500 tanks and 3,300 guns captured or put out of action.

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To the objections of his generals in the field, both panzer groups are detached from Army Group Centre in the latter part of July.  Supply problems, as well as strain on men and machines due to the pace of the advance, were telling but would in the opinion of some historians not interfered with the capture of Moscow by the still fast-moving Army Group Centre had Hitler not intervened.  One panzer group went to Army Group South, the other to Army Group North.

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Guderian's panzer group is ordered south by Hitler, away from Moscow, towards economic targets.  His 2nd Panzer Army is renamed Army Group Guderian, and after initially ignoring orders to move south (and being embroiled in fighting at Roslavl), he complies and moves south as ordered to assist Army Group South.  The immediate results were favourable, but pressure was taken off of Moscow itself.  Between August 21 and 26 September, a pocket around Kiev (capital of the Ukraine) was reduced, resulting in 665,000 Soviet soldiers being captured. (the largest mass surrender in history up to that point in time).  German advances reached the Crimea, and the German 11th Army struck out for Sebastapol on the southwestern tip, in October.
On August 7, Stalin assumes the title of Supreme Command of all military forces, something Hitler would also do in December.                                                 
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On 12 September, the first snow falls.


The final drive on Moscow is launched in October, codenamed Operation Typhoon, and comes within 20 miles of reaching the Soviet capital before being halted on 25 November.  Bitter cold, and a lack of winter clothing, forces the cancellation of further offensive operations on 5 December.    Kharkov, in the south, was taken on 24 October.

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On 7 December, Japan enters the war against the United States, and Hitler declares war on America.  Fresh Siberians troops begin counterattacks against the Germans, who are forbidden from retreating by Hitler.  Despite pleas from the front, Hitler forbids any retreats; in the end the order is the correct one, and the Army maintains its positions by and large, despite the potential for a dangerous rout to occur.
Soviet intelligence advised Stalin that the Japanese would be busy in the Pacific, and in November he felt confident enough to transfer fresh troops from Siberia to the west.  Counterattacks launched on 6 December took place in the vicinity of Kalinin, north of Moscow, at Tula to the south of the capital, at Izyum in the Ukraine, and German troops continued to lose ground until the end of the year.  Kalinin fell to the Soviets on 15 December and Kaluga at the end of the month. stavka.gif (878 bytes)


During 1941, the Red Army lost some three million soldiers (their entire strength in June, half of these being captured), and half of the Soviet Union's economic base belonged to the Germans.  But the Soviets had 9 million men of military age left (enough to man some 400 divisions) and 4500 tanks had been produced during the winter, including the heavy KV-1 type that had caused so much consternation to the Germans, and particularly the excellent T-34 which in many respects had no match in the German Army. 

With the entry of the United States into the war, and subsequent "Lend Lease" shipments of materiel and equipment from both the United Kingdom and America, Germany could not afford to wage a war of attrition.   (American Lend Lease aid had actually predated the declaration of war between Germany and the US by a full month).   German losses were also heavy, some 800,000 men, and the Soviets had successfully traded space for time.  The deeper the Germans drove into the Soviet Union, the longer their supply lines, meaning more and more resources had to be expended just getting essentials to the front lines (and not co-incidentally, finding troops to secure the rear areas).

German ignorance of Soviet forces and capabilities was enormous, and no plans had been made to provide for winter uniforms, nor for equipment able to stand the bitter cold of the Soviet winter.