Today is another “exact” date in military history. On this date in 1941, 72 years ago, Adolf Hitler, leader of Germany, violated a non-aggression treaty with the Soviet Union by invading its territory.
Known to history by several names, the German-Soviet War, Operation Barbarossa, the German code name for the invasion, and by the Soviets as The Great Patriotic War, it earned a place in history.
At 0330 hours on June 22, 1941, the Germans unleashed 3.6 million men in 153 divisions, with 3,600 tanks and 2,700 aircraft against the Soviet Union. It was the largest force ever assembled in European military history, and went against 2.9 million men, 15,000 tanks, many of which were obsolete, and 8,000 aircraft.
It began a four-year type of warfare the world had never seen before, with Blitzkrieg tactics, scorched earth tactics, and totally no-holds barred barbarism. Statistically and strategically, it dominated WW II in scope.
In the ensuing four years, some nine million troops were continually engaged, including on the German side troops from Finland, Hungary, Italy, and Romania. German forces advanced some 1,3540 miles into Soviet territory, and in their counterattack Soviet troops marched 1,550 miles to Berlin.
At no time during the war did Germany have fewer than 55 percent of its ground forces fighting in the Soviet Union. Accepted figures for casualties list German dead at three million, Soviets at 13.6 million, which is about half the total dead in WW II. Some military experts today set Soviet dead at some 26 or 27 million.
The German military produced a medal for service in the Soviet Union that troops called “the frozen flesh medal.”
The air war was totally unlike the strategic bombings on the Western Front. Almost all air missions were in support of ground forces, with 93 percent of Soviet air force missions flown within 30 miles of their airfields. Some 80 percent of bombing raids were within 6.2 miles of the front.
There were no sea battles between the German and Soviet navies, but only limited actions in the coastal waters of the Baltic and Black Seas, and escorts for Arctic convoys.
Hundreds of thousands of German POWs remained in the Soviet Union for 10 years after the war ended. While stationed in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s I met dozens of former POWs, all of whom had some pretty terrible tales to tell. Those who returned were the lucky ones, as a large percentage died while in POW camps. Josef Stalin’s son was captured by the Germans and died in a camp.
For about 20 years there was a Leavenworth connection to the German-Soviet war. The late Hans D. “Pete” Petersen had been a German soldier whose unit moved around a lot, including time in the Soviet Union.
Page 2 of 2 - Before he moved to Louisiana about 15 years ago where he could fish all year long, he used to regale me with tales of the war in “frozen flesh” country. He was in a mechanized howitzer, and fought in the largest tank battle ever fought, at a town called Kursk.
Hitler’s gamble paid off for the first few months with great gains of territory by the invading German forces, but when “General Winter” and later “General Mud” took over, the invasion was doomed.
It was a type of war that is hard for Americans to understand or comprehend. And it began by the violation of a treaty, 72 years ago today.
John Reichley is a retired Army officer and retired Department of the Army civilian employee.