1941: Unending Defeats For Russia

1941: Unending Defeats For Russia

1941. It was a nightmare year for Russia. The Wehrmacht went smashing through the country till it reached  the gates of Moscow. Hitler and his generals were exultant. They thought the Soviet Union was about to fall. But it was not to be. The Battle of Moscow changed all that. But that is another story.

Below are some images of the series of disasters for Russia in 1941....

“We only have to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.” Hitler, while leaving for his new HQ in Rastenburg, East Prussia, June 22 ‘41

“At the beginning of each campaign, one pushes a door into a dark, unseen room. One can never know what is hiding inside.” Hitler to one of his staff later in the day, June 22 ‘41

“This is the massacre of the ‘innocents’.” General Kessering, pitying the destruction of the many planes of the Soviet Air Force, June 23 1941

There existed an almost unbridgeable chasm between the confident expectation of victory which Stalin clung to in the first week of the war and the state of utter chaos and demoralization at the front line. The attack was the very opposite of what orthodox thinking in the Red Army had expected.

Instead often days of initial probing attacks, followed by the clash of the two fully mobilized armies, the entire German force swept forward in the first hours much as German leaders had expected, to all appearances a model of purposeful efficiency pitted against Soviet primitivism.

 ‘The Russian “mass,”‘ wrote a German staff officer, ‘is no match for an army with modern equipment and superior leadership.’ Most foreign observers agreed. ‘I am mentally preparing myself for headlong collapse of the Red Army and air force,’ wrote the British politician Hugh Dalton in his diary on the night of the German invasion. British and American military leaders expected German victory in weeks, months at the most.


Operation Barbarossa began just before dawn on 22 June 1941. The Germans wrecked the wire network in all Soviet western military districts to undermine Soviet communications.

Panicky transmissions from Soviet front-line units to their command headquarters were picked up like this one:

"We are being fired upon. What shall we do?"

The answer was just as confusing:

"You must be insane. And why is your signal not in code?"


Soviet forces were capable of a great deal more than their enemies and allies supposed. They were the victims not of Bolshevik primitivism but of surprise. So insistent had Stalin been that Germany would not attack in the summer that even the most rudimentary precautions were lacking. 

Aircraft were lined up in inviting rows at the main air bases, uncamouflaged. At least 1,200 of them were destroyed at sixty‐six bases within hours of the war’s beginning, most of them on the ground. Many units in forward positions had no live ammunition to issue. The speed of the German advance overwhelmed the Soviet supply system; 200 out of 340 military supply dumps fell into German hands in the first month. The army itself was in the midst of a complex redeployment. A fraction of the army was stationed in the forward echelon, another fraction was behind it, far to the rear, and reserves, larger than either of the echelons in front of them, were still further back. 

Stalin continued to insist on keeping most divisions, approximately 100, stretched out opposite the south‐west frontier, to protect the resource‐rich Ukraine, even after it was evident that the main route of German advance was further north towards Minsk and Moscow. 

Many units were in the process of moving to new quarters when the attack came. Most were under strength. In the first days army units were posted to the frontier in almost complete ignorance of the enemy’s position. No coherent order of battle could be established. Divisions were sent into the line as they arrived. Without air cover, adequate weapons or intelligence, they were annihilated, often in just a few hours. In the first four weeks of Barbarossa, 319 Soviet units were committed to battle; almost all of them were destroyed or badly damaged.

Stalin returned to the Kremlin on July 1. Two days later he broadcast to the nation for the first time since the onset of the war. It was one of the most important speeches of his life. The delivery was hesitant, interrupted by occasional gulps, as if the speaker were sipping from a glass of water; Stalin had never been a good public speaker. The message was, nevertheless, clear enough. 

He began by addressing the Soviet people as ‘brothers and sisters’, ‘friends’, words generally foreign to Stalin’s public political vocabulary. He explained that Germany had launched an unprovoked attack, and that the Soviet Union had ‘come to death grips with its most vicious and perfidious enemy’. He invoked the great heroes of the Russian past who had fought off one invader after another. Russia’s enemies were ‘fiends and cannibals’ but they could be beaten. He appealed to popular patriotism rather than revolutionary zeal. (On June 26 Pravda described the conflict for the first time as a ‘fatherland war’.) 

He called on ordinary Soviet citizens to undertake a levée en masse, like the great popular mobilization that saved the French Revolution in 1792. If retreats were necessary ‐ they could no longer be disguised from the Soviet public ‐ he promised the Germans a wasteland: ‘The enemy must not be left a single engine, a single railway car, a single pound of grain or a gallon of fuel.’ He finished by reminding his listeners that this was ‘an ordinary war’, it was total war, ‘a war of the entire Soviet people’, a choice between Soviet freedom or German slavery. 

Luftwaffe reconnaissance units worked frantically to plot troop concentration, supply dumps, and airfields, and mark them for destruction. The Luftwaffe's task was to neutralize the Soviet Air Force. This was not achieved in the first days of operations, despite the Soviets having concentrated aircraft in huge groups on the permanent airfields rather than dispersing them on field landing strips, making them ideal targets. The Luftwaffe claimed to have destroyed 1,489 aircraft on the first day of operations. Hermann Göring—Chief of the Luftwaffe—distrusted the reports and ordered the figure checked. Picking through the wreckages of Soviet airfields, the Luftwaffe's figures proved conservative, as over 2,000 destroyed Soviet aircraft were found.The Luftwaffe lost 35 aircraft on the first day of combat. The Germans claimed to have destroyed only 3,100 Soviet aircraft in the first three days. In fact Soviet losses were far higher; according to Russian historian Viktor Kulikov, some 3,922 Soviet aircraft had been lost. The Luftwaffe had achieved air superiority over all three sectors of the front, and would maintain it until the close of the year.

To many listeners this must have seemed an unenviable choice, but the response was immediate. Stalin’s slow voice gave the Soviet people a reassurance they had lacked in the confused, rumour‐filled early days of war. ‘It was the end of illusions,’ wrote the novelist Konstantin Simonov, ‘but nobody doubted his courage and his iron will… What was left after Stalin’s speech was a tense expectation of change for the better.’ The call to establish a popular militia ‐ opolchenie — was answered overwhelmingly.

Russian POW were ill-treated. That is saying it mildly. They were herded together and left to starve. In the image they are being sent in a train in a manner that even cattle would have hated.

In the western areas of the Soviet Union, so recently incorporated into the state, and in the Ukraine, the victim of Stalin’s brutality during the collectivization drive, there were genuine opponents of the regime. When German forces poured into the region they were hailed by much of the population as liberators. For many of them the last experience of Soviet occupation was the sight of straggling columns of prisoners stumbling east and the seizure by retreating troops of anything that could be carried or driven along.
“It is no exaggeration to say that the Russian campaign has been won in fourteen days.” General Halder, in his diary, July 3

By mid‐July Hitler was riding high on a wave of scarcely credible military triumph. Operation Barbarossa had worked like clockwork. The plan, elaborated more than six months before, was to strike a series of heavy blows against Soviet forces on the long western border, followed by encirclement and annihilation. Rapid pursuit was ordered to prevent Soviet forces from falling back in good order and regrouping. German forces were divided in four: a small Norwegian command based in occupied Norway and three larger Army Groups, North, Centre and South. Each Army Group was supported by an air
fleet. Army Group Centre got a half share of the German armoured divisions, two Panzer groups out of four. It was to launch a vast encircling movement towards Minsk, with the ultimate axis of attack towards Moscow. The northern Army Group was pointed at Leningrad; the southern armies were to converge on the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. Germany’s mobile and armoured divisions spearheaded the attack, though most of the army moved by foot or horse. The aim was to secure through surprise and speed the main axes of attack with the mobile units. The rest of the army would follow through, cleaning up pockets of resistance and strengthening the German front line.

“Comrades, citizens, brothers and sisters, men of our Army and Navy!  I speak to you my friends! A serious threat hangs over our country. It can only be dispersed by the combined efforts of the military and industrial might of the nation. There is no room for the timid or the coward, for deserters or spreaders of panic, and a merciless struggle must be waged against such people. We must destroy spies, agents provocateurs, and enemy parachutists…anyone who hinders our defence must be shot…The enemy must not find a single railway-engine, not a wagon, not a pound of bread nor a glass of petrol. All the farms must hand their herd to the official bodies and be sent to the rear (of the USSR). Everything else…must be destroyed.” Stalin, in a radio address, July 3 1941

When the German armed forces sprang forward on June 22 they met only slight resistance. Border guards in many cases fought bravely, sometimes literally to the last round and the last man. The great fortress at Brest‐Litovsk, right on the frontier, succeeded in holding out until July 12, its defenders fighting to a standstill. German paratroopers trained for special operations infiltrated behind Soviet lines, cutting communications, seizing bridges and adding to the general confusion. Some Soviet commands could establish contact neither with headquarters nor with the units they were supposed to be controlling. Sheer ignorance about the current military situation was a major factor explaining the disorganized Soviet response. The widespread destruction of Soviet air power made air reconnaissance nearly impossible and meant that forward troops got no respite from the continuous German air bombardment. The Red Army deployed nine mechanized corps in the first two days of the battle, but problems in supplying fuel and ammunition rendered Soviet tank warfare ineffective. Some 90 per cent of the army’s tank strength was lost in the first weeks of the war.

By June 26 Army Group North had crossed Lithuania, and was deep into Latvia. After pausing for the infantry to catch up, the armoured formations rushed forward to reach the Luga River, only sixty miles from Leningrad. Army Group Centre under Field Marshal Fedor von Bock drove in two massive pincers towards Minsk. Pavlov’s attempt to counter‐attack was swept aside, with high casualties. By June 29 German armies had reached Minsk. In their net they caught over 400,000 Soviet soldiers, in this first of the great battles of encirclement. The Panzer corps simply repeated the manoeuvre as they moved
on to Smolensk, the last major city before Moscow, which they took on July 16. Timoshenko was sent to command the Western Front and save Smolensk after Stalin assumed the job of Commissar of Defence. Timoshenko improvised a defence using reserve divisions intended as a strategic counter‐offensive force. The long, extended flanks of the German attacking force were subjected to a series of fierce assaults. Short of ammunition and supplies, with troops weakened from forced marches through the Russian heat, with few tanks and a great many horses, Timoshenko nevertheless succeeded in slowing the German advance and imposing a fearful level of casualties on an army that had conquered all of continental Europe for the loss of 50,000 men. Eighty miles south‐west of Smolensk Zhukov even succeeded in inflicting a local defeat on German forces in the Yelnya salient. On September 6 forces of the Reserve Front retook the battered town in savage fighting but were prevented by the shortage of tanks and vehicles from exploiting their victory.

The actions around Smolensk showed both the strengths and the weaknesses of Soviet forces. Soldiers fought with an extraordinary ferocity and bravery. They inflicted casualties at a high rate and in the early battles often refused to take prisoners. Captured Germans were murdered and mutilated, sometimes ritually ‐ Soviet troops had been told to expect no better from the enemy. It was not Soviet propaganda but the German army chief of staff who observed that ‘Everywhere, the Russians fight to the last man. They capitulate only occasionally.’25 When they ran out of bullets and shells — as was all too often the case in the early stages of the war ‐ they fought with knives or
bayonets. Horsemen charged with sabres drawn. Soviet forces soon came to believe that German soldiers disliked fighting away from the support of aircraft and tanks. ‘Bayonet charges,’ wrote General Rokossovsky, whose forces stood astride the road from Smolensk to Moscow, ‘are dreaded by the Germans and they always avoid them. When they counter‐attack they shoot without aiming.’

Soviet soldiers were also adept at concealment. Hiding in trees and undergrowth, in grassland or in swamp, infantrymen could maintain a chilling silence while the enemy marched past them entirely oblivious to their presence. German patrols took to placing non‐smokers in front because they were more likely to be able to smell the tell‐tale scent of the enemy ‐ the coarse tobacco, sweat, even cheap perfume, swabbed on to keep away lice. The ability to blend into the landscape, summer or winter, was exploited by the Red Army to the full in the later years of war.

The savage fighting held up but could not halt the German armies. Soviet forces lacked basic military equipment. The standard rifle dated from Tsarist days and was not generally replaced by automatic weapons until 1944. Radio communications were rudimentary and radios in short supply. Radar was not generally available. Tanks, even the most modern T‐34 and KV‐1 tanks, were short of supplies and fuel and were attacked repeatedly by German aircraft, which had local air superiority. Though brave, Red Army soldiers were tactically inept, often absurdly so. Officers were trained to undertake only frontal assaults, even across open terrain. 

A German account of Soviet counter‐attacks on a German strong point on the approach to Kiev exemplifies both Soviet persistence and Soviet ineptitude. The attack began with an artillery barrage that fell behind the German emplacement, causing no damage. Then from a thousand yards distant, a hundred yards or so separating each line, wave after wave of infantrymen rose up out of the grass and with bayonets fixed tramped towards the German lines. The first line was mowed down almost to a man by machine‐gun fire; the second was hit but was able to reform. Then the men ran towards the German guns, shouting in unison. They moved more slowly when they reached the piles of dead, stepping over or between them. Officers on horseback bullied them on and were shot by German snipers. The attack faltered and broke, then was repeated, using the same methods, four more times, each time without success. German machine‐gunners found that their guns became too hot for them to touch. ‘The fury of the attacks,’ the report continued, ‘had exhausted and numbed us completely… a sense of depression settled upon us. What we were now engaged in would be a long, bitter and hard‐fought war.’

The Soviet dispositions to meet the German attack could not have been worse. The defensive belts were not finished; the reserve army was only just being formed; above all the concentration of forces in the southern zone allowed the weight of the German attack in the north to punch a giant gap in the Soviet front, then swing forces south to eliminate the threat to their flank from Soviet armies that could not be fully deployed. The defensive weaknesses were compounded with the poor state of organization and preparation in Soviet armored and air formations. Unlike the German Panzer armies, the Soviet tanks and vehicles were organized in unwieldy mechanized corps, with large numbers of tanks spread out along the front to support the infantry armies.

Armoured divisions were widely scattered, lacked effective communications, were badly under strength and were equipped mainly with obsolete vehicles. Their function was not clearly defined. Force concentration, the great German strength, was impossible under these conditions. The same was true of Soviet air power. Large though the Soviet air forces were, outnumbering German aircraft by three to one, their planes were mostly obsolete. New aircraft entering service in 1941 came in dribs and drabs, and Soviet pilots had little time to be trained on them. Most aircraft were parcelled out, like the tanks along the front line, in direct support of individual ground armies. 

A strategic reserve existed behind the front line, directly controlled from the Stavka, but its exact role remained unclear. Soviet air tactics were rudimentary. Few Soviet aircraft had radios, leaving them dependent on close formation flying. Fighters flew three abreast in a fixed line, easy prey for German pilots, who flew in loose vertical formation, using air‐to‐air communication to help each other. The slow Soviet bombers flew close together at a set height of 8,000 feet and
were shot down like migrating geese.

These many differences between the two sides explain the remarkable victories won by German arms between June and September. Soviet forces were sent in piecemeal, to plug gaps in the leaky front line, unable to concentrate for any more ambitious operations. Stalin used his new military powers to push his tired and disorganized troops to the limit, but bit by bit the Soviet line bent and cracked. In the north German armies edged ever closer to Leningrad.

Operation Typhoon was launched in the south on September 30. Led by General Heinz Guderian, the architect of the German tank armies, it soon lived up to its name. The storm tore open the southern wing of the Soviet armies, commanded by Yeremenko; the soldier who had failed to save Kiev now faced the nightmare of losing Moscow, too. So swift was the German assault that Guderian’s troops entered Orel while the streetcars were still running. A week later Briansk was captured and Yeremenko’s three armies were trapped. Little news could be sent to Moscow; Stalin’s only instruction was to hold tight to
every defence line rather than retreat. On October 6 Yeremenko himself narrowly escaped the German encirclement. He was severely wounded by a shell but lived to fight another, and vital, day at Stalingrad.

Further north the attack began on October 2, under cover of artillery and air attack and a smoke‐screen that turned the landscape to deep fog in front of the Soviet defenders. Konev’s armies fared no better than Yeremenko’s. German forces converged on Vyazma, threatening an even larger encirclement of five Soviet armies. In two days the whole Soviet front was once again in crisis, far faster than Stalin had ever imagined could happen. 

October 5 was a critical day. Routine air reconnaissance from Moscow found a column of German armour twelve miles long converging on Yukhnov, only eighty miles from the capital. Twice more aircraft went out to confirm the unbelievable news before it was passed on in full to Zhukov’s successor as chief of staff, Marshal Boris Shaposhnikov. Finally it was believed, though this did not stop Beria from ordering the NKVD to arrest and interrogate the unfortunate air officer for ‘provocation’. Stalin telephoned the Moscow district command at once: ‘Mobilize everything you have.’ He called an immediate emergency meeting of the State Defence Committee.35 Stalin, who had been ordering last
stands all summer, ordered one more, the most important of his life. In front of Moscow, along the thinly manned ‘Mozhaisk Line’, the army of the revolution, cornered but defiant, was to face the enemy.

 A German soldier orders Russian civilians to gather captured Soviet arms.

In Moscow the mood turned from sombre to panic‐stricken. The public there had few illusions about the course of the war, but propaganda kept up the image of tough, improvised revolutionary warfare that was slowing and holding the fascist horde. Few Muscovites knew anything about what was happening at the front save by rumour. Not even Stalin knew clearly what was going on. He saw the defence of Moscow and Leningrad as a unique challenge.

They symbolized the new Soviet state. The Soviet Union might survive the fall of its capital and its second city, but the effect on the Soviet public and on world opinion would be devastating. Nonetheless Stalin had to face reality. On October i the orders went out to begin evacuating the Government 500 miles to the east, to the city of Kuibyshev. The population of Moscow began evacuating, along with foreign embassies, office staff, archives, art treasures and commissars.

Not even the threat of an NKVD bullet could stem the wildest rumours. The journalist Ilya Ehrenburg recalled that in Moscow ‘the general mood was appalling’. The panic suddenly burst in mid‐October, just as Ehrenburg, too, got his marching orders for the east. The scenes he found at the Kazan Station defied description. Trains were swamped by desperate Muscovites, who occupied any space they could. Ehrenburg lost his luggage in the melee but was lucky enough to find a place on a long suburban train that took almost a week to reach the safety of the designated capital of rump Russia.42 For those left behind Beria ordered food to be distributed free to the population to save it from the Germans. But by then people were helping themselves. Looters moved into the empty shops and offices. In the modern apartment buildings in the city centre the managers collaborated with thieves to steal paintings and furnishings left behind. Stalin had almost lost control of his capital not to the German army, now only two or three days away, but to his own frightened people.

The panic was triggered by an unusually frank and grim communique broadcast in Moscow on October 16. ‘During the night of October 14—15,’ ran the report, ‘the position on the Western Front became worse.’ The Germans, with large quantities of tanks, ‘broke through our defences’. The following day the radio announced that Moscow would be defended stubbornly to the death, that no thought had been given to abandoning the capital (which was not, of course, true), but that above all Stalin was still in Moscow. Why he chose to remain we cannot know for certain. But on the 17th, instead of following his Government, he went out to his dacha, which had been mined for demolition, to do some work. He found his guards about to blow up the building. He ordered them to clear the mines and started to work in his study.

In Moscow the NKVD moved in to shoot looters and restore order, while thousands of not entirely enthusiastic volunteers were formed into labour battalions to dig defences or into ramshackle militia to be moved at once to the front. Every tenth apartment building manager was shot as an example. A state of siege was declared on October 19. The city prepared for the showdown. Stalin informed his guards that he was staying put: ‘We will not surrender Moscow.’

One of the Russian soldier is actually grinning. He perhaps at that stage did not realise what he was in for.

Dead Russian soldiers. Many died fighting. Many died as POW.

Captured women Red Army soldiers. One admires their courage.

Suggested Reading

Russia's War by Richard Overy