1941, Russia, The First Day of the Ostfront
Posted December 9th, 2011 at 10:49 AM by irishcrusader95
1941, Russia, The First Day of the Ostfront
June the 22nd 1941 was a defining day in the history of World War 2, perhaps even in the history of the world. On that early morning, germen troop’s fresh from their conquests in Europe and the Balkans crossed the border into Russia marking the beginning of operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. It was to be the beginning of a war that would eclipse all others before it. Its outcome would decide the results of World War 2 and of world history for many decades to come. But what happened in those 24 hours on that first day, how exactly did the invasion began, what was the soviet response and how was the news of the war received by the civilians in both Germany and Russia. These and other questions I hope to answer in an essay devoted entirely to the planning for the operation, the build-up and the first 24 hours of the war.
Planning and Preparation
Hitler declared his intention to invade the Soviet Union on the 31st of July 1940, after which planning began. Yet the desire to invade had been in Hitler’s mind since his writings in Mein Kampf as early as 1925. As he saw it, on one side stood the germen nation, a bastion and embodiment of the Aryan race, on the other was the degenerate Slavic Jews who threatened to destroy civilization. Germen supremacy would be achieved through first eliminating domestic opponents, and then through foreign conquests it would eliminate the victors of World War 1 and expand east to acquire Lebensraum (living space) so that the Aryan race could expand to its full potential. The eventual aim would be to create a Germen Empire stretching from the Urals to Gibraltar were the Untermenschen (sub-Humans) Slavs would be subjected to a Helot-like serfdom.
Inter war relations between Germany and the Soviet Union had on both ends been a case of self-interest. Secret military exchanges had taken place before even the treaty of Rapallo in 1922 where bogus germen firms had secretly manufactured airplanes, tanks and weapons of all kinds on Russian territory and beyond the watchful eye of the Versailles treaty. The Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of august 1939 had also been a case of self-interest for both sides. As part of the pacts protocol the Soviet Union exported large amounts of raw materials and agricultural produce to Germany, by the 22nd of June some 1,000,000 tons of mineral oil had been delivered, oil which would go towards the invasion itself. Planning and knowledge of the operation was kept on a strict need to know basis, General Gunter Blumentritt, the fourth panzer army chief of staff commentated that neither Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge nor any of his staff received any indication of a war with Russia until January 1941. Through early spring, more and more divisions were moved east as preparations intensified, detailed maps and photo albums of the terrain and cities were studied, of particular interest was Napoleons 1812 campaign against Russia. Von Kluge read General de Caulaincourts account of the campaign which reviled the difficulties of fighting and even living in Russia, they all knew that soon they would be following in Napoleons footsteps. In studying the previous failed invasions of Charles XII of Sweden in 1709 and Napoleons in 1812 one could see they failed because of long marches, shortages of supplies, staunch resistance by the inhabitant’s and the severity of the Russian winter. Many germen officers who had fought in Russia during the First World War had cause to ponder their own experience of the tenacity of the Russian soldier. Yet germen planners felt that current technological and ideological difference far outweighed the potential historical similarities. The most fundamental belief in the planning was a racist belief that the Russian Slavs were incapable of putting up proper resistance and that their industry was completely backward and inferior to modern germen industries. Previous respect for the Russian army had greatly fallen after seeing their disastrous performance in the Russo-Finnish war of 1939. Germen planners were well aware of the inner turmoil in the red army that Stalin’s purges had visited on the officer corps, a short Blitzkrieg campaign was sure to succeed.
Generalleutnant Paulus co-ordinated the planning for the operation from September 1940, three massive spearheads would attack along the front with the primary objectives under Hitler being economic, the soviet forces would be trapped and swiftly destroyed in the west before they had time to escape. Securing the fertile Ukrainian green lands and the industrial area of the Donets Basin and eventually the Caucasian oil fields, the germen commanders were motivated by an operational imperative of destroying the red army, economic prizes would follow. Three germen army groups were formed for the operation, one in the south and two to the north of the Pripet marshes that divided them. Army group centre under the command of Generalfeldmarschall von Bock numbered 51 divisions and was to be the main point of effort. Its objective was to encircle the enemy west of the Dnieper and Dvina near Minsk so as to prevent an eastward escape. For this task it contained the bulk of the mobile formations, nine panzer, six motorised and one cavalry division. Army group north which numbered 26 divisions was under the command of Generalfeldmarschall von Leeb, Its objective was to attack Leningrad, link up with the Finns and destroy all enemy forces in the Baltic. It contained three panzer and two motorized divisions. Army group south under Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt contained 40 divisions and was supported by 14 Romanian divisions and a Hungarian corps, supported by five panzer and two motorised divisions it was to cut off enemy forces east of Kiev. Some 22 divisions and two panzer divisions were held in reserve behind the front, most of the forces were infantry, armoured spearheads would dictate the pace of the advance but otherwise they would advance at the same speed as Napoleons infantry 130 years before.
Germen divisions were moved east and set up as secretly as possible, artillery units dressed in civilian clothes stocked up ammunition reserves and hid them under foliage, panzer units were instructed to only move at night, over 50 airstrips had been secretly constructed using polish forced labour, it was clear to all that a campaign was not long off the only question was where it would be, while Russia seemed the obvious target the non-aggression pact was always in the back of the germen soldiers mind and trains continued to pass between the border unbothered. Leutnant F. W. Christians was convinced the forthcoming operation was to secure the oil wells of Baku against a possible British attack and that they would be passing through ‘friendly territory’, this was thought to be the reason they were given Russian dictionaries and told to study the Cyrillic alphabet. Platoon commanders were often asked: “so where are we off to” – “No idea”, was the response. On the early morning of the 21st of June officers were summoned to an early morning conference and their they were told of the invasion that would take place in less than 24 hours. The officers then gave the news to the men. The response was universal shock among the rank and file. ‘one could say we were completely floored’ confessed Lothar Fromm, an artillery forward observation officer.’ we learned that the attack, operation “Barbarossa”, was on, only a few hours before it started’ commentated Eduard Janke with the 2nd SS panzer division ‘Das Reich’, ‘and that in a few hours we would be off’, Just as Hitler had predicted “when Barbarossa is launched the world will hold its breath”.
All Quite on the Eastern Front
Across the whole 800km frontier seven germen armies were poised for the attack, 3.6 million men, 3,648 tanks and self-propelled guns, 7,146 artillery pieces and 2,510 aircraft. They composed of 120 divisions and were potentially the most lethal invasion force yet seen in the history of warfare. In a few hours the cream of germen youth would be going into battle, they were technologically and tactically far more superior to their opponents and were to attack with the full benefit of surprise. Across the border in the soviet western military district alone were 2.9 million troops with 14,000-15,000 tanks, 34,695 artillery pieces and 8,000-9,000 combat aircraft. H-hour for the attack was set for 03:15; (Berlin time) all along the front soldiers did last minute checks before the opening bombardment that would herald the beginning of the Ostfront (eastern front).
The tension was high among all, across the river Bug the town of Brest was sleeping; earlier the electricity had been cut by germen sabotages. The soviets were completely unaware of what was about to happen, for many days there had been reports of suspicious acts by the germens, the barbed wire on their side of the border had been removed and there had been numerous border violations by germen aircraft. Some commanders, tense about the situation had put all units on stand to. All along the soviet frontier there had been a huge military build-up for some while, whether this was a defensive measure or a build up for a future invasion is debated to this day. At 02:00 hours on Sunday the 22nd of June a colonel in the soviet 41st rifle division received a call from the border guards, they reported that all along the front they could hear troops and armour moving and that they had found that the germens had been massing since dusk, at that moment the telephone lines between the staff of fourth army and the western military district as well as those of other divisions were reported cut. Dispatch riders were sent out until contact was re-established at 3:30 hours.
All along the front Heinkel He111 bombers took off from their pre-constructed airfields. 60% of the Luftwaffe’s strength was deployed along the frontier, 1,400 of its 1,945 operational aircraft, of which 1,280 were serviceable. They were assembled into four luftflotte, luftflotte 1 would support army group north, luftflotte 2 with 50% of the strike force would support army group centre, luftflotte 4 would support army group south and luftflotte 5 would fly in the north from Norway. In the south the Romanian army was supported by a further 230 aircraft, 299 Finnish aircraft would join latter. They were massively outnumbered by the Russians yet they achieved complete tactical surprise and caught the soviet air force on the ground completely lined up wingtip to wingtip, the airfields were the bombers targets, at exactly 03:15 their bomb bay doors opened and released their cargo on their targets. Blazing fires and delay action explosives added to the confusion of the ground crews, there was no guidance from superior headquarters; individual units coped as best they could and situation reports did not get out for some four hours. Back at the germen airfields Stuka dive bombers and Messerschmitt Bf109s took off and began moving towards the frontier to run strafing attacks on the airfields and bomb individual targets. Below them endless germen columns were rolled in the same direction.
As the bombers were unloading their cargo, artillery units all along the front began the opening bombardment which was planned to last for 15min, just prior to the attack, Heinrich Eikmeier watched as the first 88mm round slid easily into the breech of his Flack gun, he looked around as officers peered intently at their stopwatches, he wondered to himself would his round be the first to herald the new campaign on the Ostfront?. At exactly 03:15 all hell broke loose as the bright flash’s lit up the early morning sky. At 03:30 the bombardment stopped and red flares were launched to signal the infantry to move forward. From the city of Memel on the Baltic south to Romania on the black sea the three army groups moved forward, one of the first objectives that army group centre would face was the fortress of Brest-Litovsk which lay just across the river Bug that separated the two frontiers. Built in 1842, it consisted of four partly natural and partly artificial islands at the confluence of the Bug and Muchaviec rivers, in the centre was the citadel island which was surrounded concentrically by the three other islands. The citadel was ringed by a massive two-storey wall, underground passage ways and cellars linked each part of the citadel. Each of the outer islands had outer defences; in total some 6km of defence works ringed the fortress, yet the germens had a distinct advantage as they already had control of the first two outer islands as they lay on their side of the demarcation line that separated the two nations. Yet even so, the thick walls of the citadel would prove in time to be very hard to crack.
All along the 800km of the Bug River assault parties dashed across bridges and surprised soviet guards before they had time to detonate demolition charges on the bridges, infantry troops moved across the river on rubber dinghies followed later by pioneer units that constructed the first pontoon bridges. In the 18th panzer divisions sector, many tanks just drove straight into the river completely submerging themselves and came out the other end thanks to the attachment of 3m pipes which protruded from the surface of the water allowing the crew and engines to breathe, exhausts were fitted with one way valves and gun turrets were insulated by air filled bicycle inner tubes. About 80 of these tanks achieved total surprise as they arrived on the other bank and quickly dispatched soviet armoured cars that had been menacing the infantry. The infantry mainly lead the way, supported by the panzers and artillery, consequently the artillery in some places fell short and killed a number of their own men, much of this was blamed on the newly developed Nebelwerfer multi-barrelled rocket launcher. There was sporadic resistance by individual soviet units who held their ground at bunkers and other strongpoints all while desperately trying to get into contact with high command for instructions on what to do. At 4:55 hours XIIth army corps reported to fourth army HQ that ‘until now, the impression is the enemy has been totally surprised’. The corps pointed to soviet radio intercepts which were asking ‘what should we do’ among other things. By 06:15 hours, in the area around Brest-Litovsk, Guderian’s panzergruppe 2 was ordered to give maximum offensive effort once the total surprise of the Russians was clear from radio intercepts and statements from captured prisoners. Lines of motionless panzers erupted into activity as they screeched off towards newly constructed pontoon’s or captured bridges. All were amazed at how much of the battlefield was dominated by their artillery and aircraft, another noticeable aspect was the bodies from both sides that lay by the roadsides. It was a bitter taste of what was to come.
Back in Berlin the soviet ambassador Vladimir Dekanosow had been trying to contact the germen foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop. He had been trying to get through to him all through the previous day after increasingly frantic messages from Moscow arrived asking for information on what was happening, he had been told repeatedly that the foreign minster was out of town and not currently available to speak. Stalin had been completely ignorant of a possible germen invasion up to that time and regarded all information that spoke of an intended invasion as disinformation from the west to try and spark a war. Two weeks before the invasion the germen foreign minister in Moscow, count von der Schulenburg had invited Dekanosow, who was then back in Moscow, to a private lunch where he had warned him of Hitler’s plans to invade. Dekanosow who couldn’t believe it to be true related the story to Stalin who exploded saying ‘Disinformation has now reached ambassadorial level!’ As the night drew on the ambassador had just about given up at trying reaching Ribbentrop when at around 3am the telephone at the embassy rang, a voice told the secretary that the Reichsminister wishes to see representatives of the soviet government at the Wihelmstrasse, a car was already waiting outside to bring them immediately there. Dekanosow and his secretary Berezhkov arrived at the Wihelmstrasse at around 4:00am to find a large group of people outside it. As they walked in they were surrounded by pressmen who temporarily blinded them with the flashbulbs of their cameras. On walking in they were quickly greeted by Ribbentrop who lead them to a table were they sat down. He them read out to them what amounted to a declaration of war but without even using those words.
“The soviet government’s hostile attitude to Germany and the serious threat represented by Russian troop concentrations on Germany’s eastern frontier have compelled the Reich to take military counter-measures”
The two me were absolutely stunned as the full significance of what was happening sank in, Dekanosow stood up. ‘You’ll regret this insulting, provocative and thoroughly predatory attack on the soviet union. You’ll pay dearly for it!’ As the two men left Ribbentrop ran up beside Berezhkov and whispered to him ‘tell them in Moscow that I was against this attack’. Berezhkov was unmoved. The two men returned to the embassy, there the staff told them that their phone lines had been cut. The senior NKVD and GRU (military intelligence) at the embassy proceeded to the top floor, a restricted area sealed off with reinforced steel doors and steel shutters. There they fed secret documents into a quick burn oven that had been installed in case of an emergency. Communications had completely fallen apart under the onslaught and no one in soviet command knew what was going on at the front.
The Longest Day
In the central sector, the 45th infantry division moved forward on its objective, the fortress of Brest-Litovsk. Status reports on it progress were at first optimistic, by 04:00 hours they reported the capture of a number of bridges including the main railway bridge yet there was no noteworthy enemy resistance. At 04:42 they reported 50 enemy prisoners taken, many dressed only in their shirts because they had been surprised while asleep. Over the next few hours resistance became more apparent, panzer spearheads were making good progress with the support of Stuka dive bombing attacks. The 45th was to assault the fortress by a main assault on the citadel and secure the outer islands while other divisions cleared the further flanks of the fortress. After overcoming some resistance the outer islands were secure, yet the fighting for the citadel was becoming very heavy. By 08:50 hours the corps commanders on seeing that the 45th divisions pace of advance was not mirroring that of flanking formations that bypassed the area, they decided to commit the reserve force of infantry regiment 133, so far the 45th had lost scores of men including a company commander and two battalion commanders killed. By 10:50 hours the fighting was still going on around the citadel with many losses reported, the attack was bogging down. Russian sharpshooters proved to be very accurate as officers began to fall at a dreadful rate. Artillery fire could not be used as defender and attacker were so close to each other, despite the initial surprise the Russians were now putting up a very staunch fight.
The fortress normally had 8000 soldiers stationed at it but only about 3,500 were present when the attack began. This was due to it being the weekend, in peacetime on a Sunday morning with many soldiers on leave. Civilians in the fort lived among the soldiers; next to the barracks was a school. When the bombardment began it shook everyone to the core. Georgij Karbuk, a young boy in the fort, was shaken awake by his father. ‘Get up, its war!’ He shouted. All around him he could hear the sounds of battle. As he ran outside he asked a group of soldiers running by what was going on. ‘Can’t you see? its war!’ they replied. By midday the 45th divisions attack on the citadel was visibly faltering, wounded soldiers began stumbling across the bridges, many bandaged and half undressed while under constant enemy fire. At 13:50 hours the commander of the 45th division gave in to the inevitable, the citadel could not be taken by infantry assault alone, at 14:30 hours the decision was taken to withdraw the vanguard elements of the 45th from the citadel, this would have to wait until the cover of darkness. The garrison at the fort would then be reduced by directed artillery fire and starved out, the fort would continue to resist until the 29th of June when the last area was cleared. For the 45th division it was a depressing start to the campaign with 21 officers and 290 NCOs and men killed in the first 24 hours.
Despite some very dogged resistance, progress was made all along the 3000km front and the panzer spearheads made very deep thrusts. A question that many Wehrmacht soldiers asked themselves during the beginning of the operation was “where and at which place would there be an end to operations?” some were arrogantly confident and believed that in four to five weeks the swastika flag would hang over the Kremlin, others were more rational believing that once the war was over and that in Africa, then Ribbentrop would only need to send a single germen soldier to England to negotiate a peace, either that or they would all have to go over there but at least with the support of 6 air fleets and 10,000 panzers. Yet not all soldiers were confident of the outcome, Johann Danzer, an anti-tank gunner, recalled:
‘On day one during our first break one of the company’s soldiers shot himself with his own rifle. He put the rifle between his knees, placed the muzzle in his mouth and squeezed off. For him, the war with all its pressures was at an end.’
Danzers experiences on that first day bare mute testimony of the horrors that his suicidal comrade sought to avoid. There was deep penetration all along the front with a lot of bridges captured intact, the seventh panzer division had captured the bridge across the river Neman at Olita by 12:45 hours, the Russians immediately launched a counter attack on them with heavy tanks, artillery and troop support. The first tank clash of the war began as the Russians were beaten back losing 82 tanks, a number of germen tanks were lost in the engagement as well with many having their entire turret blown clean off. The red air force was almost nowhere to be seen during the day, they had suffered terrible losses during the initial airstrike with 1,811 aircraft destroyed on the first day, only 322 of these were shot down in the air with the rest being destroyed on the ground, germen losses were only 35. While some soviet aircraft did get off the ground and launch some attacks on advancing infantry columns, most did not last long in the air as they were shot down by germen fighters who were better organised and coordinated, there was nine reported incidences during the day of soviet aircraft resorting to suicidal ramming tactics. The soviet air force had suffered awful losses yet while many planes were lost many of the pilots survived and lived to fight another day, furthermore, germen reconnaissance had only located about 30% of the European red air force, it’s overall assessment of their strength was off by over half. Germen control of the air was achieved by dusk; from this point on the Luftwaffe concentrated on supporting the ground advance. As dusk approached there was startling success all along the front, in General Guderian’s panzergruppe 2 in the central sector, 17th panzer division covered 18km, 3rd panzer division achieved 36km, 4th panzer 39km and the 1st cavalry division 24km.
Yet the difference of this campaign to the others before it was clear to all, in army group centre, a germen regiment numbering some 800 men was fired upon by a soviet rearguard which consisted of only a soviet commissar and four men, casualties were negligible but this suicidal attack left an uncomfortable feeling of insecurity. Veterans of the previous campaigns in the west were not used to such tactics were in the west the enemy would always surrender once outmanoeuvred. These stay behind units would constitute the greatest fear for germen soldiers. The invasion was now in full swing as the first 24 hours of a conflict that was to last nearly four years came to a close.
Victory will be ours! Germany
Shortly after Ribbentrop had given Hitler’s memorandum to the two soviet diplomats back at the Wihelmstrasse in Berlin, he stepped out and announced to the press that the invasion was now already 2 hours old. This was soon followed by Goebbels radio speech to the germen people announcing the invasion and the beginning of the ostfront. The public’s reaction was one of total shock and initially of fear. This is shown in the great concern evident in people’s letters to sons, brothers, husbands and so on who were now at the front. Yet according to a secret SS report on the home front this dismay and nervousness quickly gave way to an optimistic mood and belief that the war would not last long, the same report stated that ‘bets have been made not on the outcome of the war but on the date it will end’.
Victory will be ours! Russia
Back in Russia at around noon (Moscow time) loudspeakers crackled up and the foreign minister Molotov made the announcement that Germany had invaded the Soviet Union. People lined the streets silently listening to the announcement. The reaction was, like their counterparts in Germany just hours before, one of total shock. Yet this soon gave way to a massive surge of patriotism. Molotov’s speech ended on the words-
‘the government calls upon you, men and women of the soviet union, to rally even more closely around the glorious Bolshevik party, around the soviet government and our great leader, comrade Stalin. Our cause is good. The enemy will be smashed. Victory will be ours’
With that the loudspeakers ended. People at first were unsure of what to do; many started lining up at the grocery store to stock up on food or went to the bank to withdraw their savings. Many more went straight to the recruiting office to join up, reservists didn’t wait to be called up they went straight to the barracks. This massive wave completely swamped soviet authorities at first as there were still yet no directions on what was to be done. None of them could have imagined the hardships that awaited them or how many would die and how long it would take, yet the country was certainly rallied behind the cause, everyone wanted to play there part and they would all get their chance for at that moment germen armies were advancing at a huge pace into the soviet hinterland, the world was holding its breath.
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