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What Was Operation 'Barbarossa'?

On 22 June 1941 Hitler launched Operation 'Barbarossa', the invasion of the Soviet Union. It was the beginning of a campaign that would ultimately decide the Second World War.

Hitler regarded the Soviet Union as his natural enemy. He aimed to destroy its armies, capture its vast economic resources and enslave its populations, providing the Lebensraum (or 'living space') that Hitler believed Germany needed in the East.    

German forces attacked towards Leningrad in the north, Moscow in the centre and the Ukraine in the south. Hitler expected a rapid victory. The Soviet Army was large, but poorly trained and badly led. Its senior commanders feared the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, as much as the enemy now crashing through their defences.

At first, the Germans enjoyed stunning success. The armoured – or 'panzer' – divisions forged ahead and hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers were killed or captured in huge encirclement battles. The Luftwaffe ruled the skies. But the immense distances and difficult terrain soon caused logistical problems. Russian troop numbers had been underestimated and, despite terrible losses, the Soviet will to fight remained strong. German casualties mounted.

Hitler disagreed with his generals on strategy. He delayed the thrust on Moscow to reinforce his troops in the north and south. It was a fateful decision. The Soviets had time to defend their capital. As the brutal Russian winter took hold the German advance ground to a halt just short of the city. Soviet forces then counterattacked, forcing the Germans onto the defensive. It was Hitler’s first defeat of the war.