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Operation Barbarossa: The German Perspective on the Largest Invasion in History

In the early hours of June 22, 1941, over 3.5 million German soldiers, supported by 600,000 horses, 500,000 motor vehicles, 3,500 tanks, 7,000 artillery pieces, and 3,000 aircraft, launched a surprise attack along a 1,800-mile front against the Soviet Union. This massive offensive, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, marked the beginning of the largest military invasion in history and a turning point in World War II.

Objectives and Scale

The primary objectives of Operation Barbarossa were to swiftly destroy the Soviet Armed Forces, capture key cities such as Leningrad, Moscow, and Kyiv, and secure the vast territories and resources of the western Soviet Union. Adolf Hitler, driven by his ideological hatred of Communism and his desire for "living space" (Lebensraum) in the East, believed that the Soviet Union would quickly collapse under the weight of the German onslaught.

Opposing the German forces was the Red Army, which boasted the world‘s largest tank force and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of manpower. Despite its numerical superiority, the Red Army was caught off-guard by the sudden German attack, as Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had ignored numerous warnings of an impending invasion.

Surprise Attack and Initial Successes

German soldiers, pilots, and officers vividly recalled the first hours and days of Operation Barbarossa. Gunner Heinrich Eikmeier described the signal to open fire: "We were told our gun would provide the signal… When we fired, lots of other guns, both left and right of us, would open fire too, and then the war would start."

Luftwaffe pilots, such as Helmut Mahlke and Hans von Hahn, were amazed by the sight of Soviet airfields packed with aircraft, lined up "as if on parade." The ensuing aerial assault resulted in the destruction of an estimated 2,000 Soviet planes on the first day alone, with the Luftwaffe losing only 78 aircraft in comparison.

On the ground, German infantry, nicknamed "landsers," led the charge. Helmut Pabst, a young soldier, recounted the intensity of the first hours: "We moved fast, sometimes flat on the ground… By ten o‘clock we were already old soldiers and had seen a great deal; the first prisoners, the first dead Russians."

The initial German advances were swift and far-reaching. In the north, Erich Brandenberger‘s panzer units advanced an astonishing 50 miles on the first day. However, the Germans quickly realized that this campaign would be unlike any other they had experienced.

Challenges and Resistance

As the German forces pushed deeper into Soviet territory, they encountered unexpected challenges. In Ukraine, soldiers like Sigmund Landau were greeted with "a friendly – almost frenzied welcome" from the local population, who saw the Germans as liberators from Stalin‘s oppressive regime. This reception contrasted starkly with the fierce resistance offered by Red Army soldiers, who, as Heinrich Haape observed, "fought like devils and never surrendered."

Perhaps most shocking to the Germans was the discovery of Soviet tanks, such as the KV and T-34, which were superior to their own. One German soldier lamented, "There wasn‘t a single weapon that could stop them… in instances of near panic the soldiers began to realize that their weapons were useless against the big tanks."

Despite these challenges, the Germans‘ superior training and leadership at the tactical and operational levels allowed them to continue their advance, aiming to destroy the Red Army and capture key objectives.

Encirclement Battles and Brutality

The German plan to annihilate Soviet forces hinged on a series of massive encirclement battles, known as "kessel schlacht." The first such battle occurred on the Polish-Belarusian plain at Bialystok-Minsk in late June. When the German panzer pincers met, they trapped a staggering number of Soviet soldiers and equipment. To the Germans‘ astonishment, the trapped Soviets refused to surrender, fighting on in scenes that "could have been scripted by Dante."

An even larger encirclement battle took place in September near Kyiv, where over 1 million Soviet soldiers were positioned. The ensuing clash was marked by the tenacity of Soviet resistance and the brutality of the fighting on both sides. A German mountain trooper described the Soviets attacking "across a carpet of their own dead," while the Waffen-SS officer Kurt Meyer witnessed the aftermath of Soviet atrocities against captured German soldiers.

The German response was equally ruthless, with soldiers like Wilhelm Schröder noting in his diary the summary execution of Soviet prisoners by machine gun. By the end of the Kyiv encirclement, an astounding 665,000 Soviet soldiers had been captured, but the Red Army still refused to collapse.

The Toll of the Campaign

As the German soldiers continued their eastward march through the vast expanses of the Soviet Union, they faced not only determined enemy resistance but also the physical and psychological toll of the campaign. With only 10% of the German army mechanized, most soldiers had to trek countless miles on foot, enduring extreme heat, dust, and exhaustion.

Wilhelm Lübbecke vividly described the experience: "Battling both stifling heat and thick clouds of dust, we plodded countless miles… after a while a kind of hypnosis would set in as you watched the steady rhythm of the man‘s boots in front of you. Utterly exhausted, I sometimes fell into a quasi-sleepwalk… waking only briefly whenever I stumbled into the body ahead of me."

The Long-Term Impact

Despite the initial successes of Operation Barbarossa, the German forces ultimately failed to achieve their objectives of a swift victory over the Soviet Union. The vast distances, harsh weather conditions, and unyielding Soviet resistance gradually wore down the German war machine.

The failure of Operation Barbarossa had far-reaching consequences for Germany and the course of World War II. The campaign drained Germany‘s resources, weakened its forces on other fronts, and ultimately led to a protracted war on the Eastern Front that would prove to be Germany‘s undoing.


Operation Barbarossa, as seen through the eyes of the German soldiers who participated in it, was a campaign of unparalleled scale, brutality, and consequence. The firsthand accounts of the men on the ground provide a harrowing glimpse into the realities of this titanic struggle, which shaped the course of the war and the fate of millions.

As we continue to study and reflect upon this pivotal moment in history, it is crucial to remember the experiences of those who lived through it and to draw lessons from the immense human cost of war. The German perspective on Operation Barbarossa serves as a poignant reminder of the complexities and tragedies of this monumental conflict.