Operation Barbarossa Begins
On the 22nd of June, 1941, the Axis powers began an invasion of the Soviet Union, in what would become the largest military engagement in human history. This conflict would decide the fate of the Soviet Union, and would be the biggest hurdle that Nazi Germany would face in establishing a New World Order. It would test the might of Soviet Arms and Armor against the experienced German Army and their own weapons.
Seeds of the Conflict
Even from his days as a Beer Hall organizer, Adolph Hitler knew that conflict with the Soviet Union was inescapable. A burgeoning, industrialized German population needed living room and more natural resources to support their expansionist aims. As the German attempts at colonialism around the world had ended in World War I, the only potential source of new territory was in the East.
As a result, Hitler envisioned wars against pan-Slavic ideals and the Jewish masters that controlled them. The East would be invaded and conquered in a lightening conflict that would end almost as soon as it started. Initial supplies and food stocks would be used to feed the German state, putting pressure on the population. After this stage a wave of new German colonialism would start, with the East becoming systematically de-industrialized, and made into an Agrarian region for the German Empire.
Despite this mentality, and these ultimate aims, Hitler maintained semi-cordial relations with the Soviet Union all the way until the invasion. The two powers had signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and used it to divide Poland. However, both powers knew that war was coming, as can be seen from military buildup from both sides, and various speeches from both leaders.
When World War II actually came about, the Germans had even more reason to go to War with Russia. Their was the potential for war with the Russians over the Baltic States already, but one of the primary motives, was to gain oil to fuel the German economy. As a result, in December of 1940, Germany began to make plans to invade in May of 1941.
There is some speculation, that the Soviet Union had a capable agent within the ranks of the Reich. In that same month, Stalin mentioned to his Generals that Hitler was preparing for war, and that Hitler didn't think the Red Army would be prepared for such a war (after having been beaten by Finland in the Winter War), for another two to four years. This same information was included in some of the initial briefs that Hitler received from his own command staff.
My Favorite Book on the Subject
Preperations for Barbarossa
While Stalin did make some attempt at preparedness, Hitler outpaced him sincerely. Stalin thought that German would wait until it finished its war with Britain before invading. Still, before the Baltic campaign was over, the German Military was already forming Army Group North, Army Group Center, and Army Group South. A total of around 4 million soldiers were moved into strategic positions, in preparation for the Invasion.
Still, Stalin increased his reserves on the frontier from 3 million men to 5 million men (doubling the number of divisions). In total, these new forces had 115,000 Artillery Guns/Mortars, 20,000 Tanks, and 20,000 Aircraft. These numbers usually gave a 5 to 1 advantage to the Soviet Forces.
While this may have been the case, often times, the readiness of the units was lacking. Often, units had few trucks with which to resupply their forces after conflict, some of the roads in the area were underdeveloped leading to mobility and supply issues. Most of the Soviet commanders were younger and less experienced than their German counterparts.
Outbreak & Army Group North
Following the start of the War, the Germans were able to leverage significant strategic and numerical advantage upon the enemy. Ancillary German forces would hold the lines, and report on enemy units, while limited mobile reserves might respond to counter-attacks. The bulk of the German Infantry, Mechanized, and Armor units would concentrate on weak points, with German Tanks penetrating, with the aid of ground attack aircraft, behind Russian lines in classic Blitzkrieg style.
The Infantry would then join, with more mobile units moving to disrupt enemy supplies as possible, and heavier infantry groups moving into place to sorround enemy positions. This tactic worked very well early in the invasion, as Red Army units were caught in 'salients', and were subject to massive rates of attrition and desertion as supplies and ammunition dwindled, and casualties mounted.
Often, resistance would collapse, and the German army could move on, Armor units spearheading where they could, followed by swift moving army groups. All the while, the lines were brought forward by ancillary units who would handle such tasks as POW management, supply, and civil management.
This strategy worked incredibly well for Army Group North, who were actually heralded as liberators by the people of the Baltic states. As a result, upon liberation, many men from the Baltic joined the Axis cause, organizing volunteer units, or joining a Baltic SS division (the Baltic SS Legion and eventually 20th Waffen SS). In addition, the people of the Baltic were generally amicable and helpful to their new conquerors.
As a result, Army Group North had taken a lighter toll on the Baltic than Army Group South or Army Group Center did for their respective regions. This would end as the Germas settled in, after a long and hard-fought drive, around Leningrad.
Army Group Center
The Center Army group headed for Smolensk, and to the symbolic capture of Moscow. It followed the same basic strategy as the rest of the German military, isolating enemy forces and then forcing them to concede through attrition.
This Army Group saw their task as the most important, as it would likely herald the collapse of the Soviet Union. They would likely oversee the capture of the Capital, and possibly even the capture of the Stalin himself.
Initial capture of the cities of Minsk and Smolensk went as expected, while the army sustained some losses, it captured both strongholds with speed and vigor. By November of 1941, the Wehrmacht had come within 17 miles of Moscow itself. However, by this time, the winter had set in, and Soviet reinforcements had arrived in the Capital. By December 2nd, 1941; Germany had been pushed back away from the Capital. They would never come so close to the Capital again.
Army Group South
The Southern end of Axis forces were responsible for capturing the rich agricultural heartland of the Ukraine. Eventually, they would also make an attempt to capture rich oil fields in the Baltic. During the actual invasion, the biggest hurdle for Army Group South was Kiev. Most of the rest of the region came under their control through systemic use of Blitzkrieg tactics.
However, as the Northern Campaign came to a stall, the Southern Army Group would become central to the continued success of the Germans in 42. Indeed, the Battle of Stalingrad, the most pivotal battle of the entire war, was fought here. But that would have to wait until after the winter.
The Russians attempted two counter offensives during the Winter. One to push Army Group Center back from the capital, under Georgi Zhukov, was a success. The other, to push Army Group North from Leningrad stalled, but successfully prevented the Germans from launching a renewed offensive in the following spring.
However, what is important about this winter, and these offensives, is that they marked a change in strategic momentum. The Blitzkrieg had ended, the initial momentum had faded. The Soviets had successfully regained ground, and more importantly, battle hardened divisions and commanders provided both the tactics and the will to withstand the lightening war. Now, that the lines had been settled, and lightening strikes couldn't be exploited, the war was going to come down to three things: Attrition, Resources, and Technology.
Ultimately, the Soviet Union would have the upper-hand in all three.